The Writer's Jukebox: An Interview with Chuck Eddy
By Michaelangelo MatosSeptember 29, 2011
Photograph of Chuck Eddy © Lalena Fisher
BORN IN 1960 AND RAISED IN DETROIT, Chuck Eddy is a pivotal rock critic. The author of three books — Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe (1991), The Accidental Evolution of Rock and Roll (1997), and the brand new Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism, just published by Duke University Press — Eddy’s cantankerous persona has long been a thorn in the side of everyone under the sun. He has pissed off countless purists with his densely in-joke and boffo-joke laden, louder-than-loud persona, his wide-open approach to genre, and his fiercely argued, kicking-against-the-pricks opinions, which tend to run counter to the prevailing critical wisdom (to say the least). “To this day,” Chuck Klosterman writes in his introduction to Rock and Roll Always Forgets, “I’ve never found a nonfiction book with more voice-per-square-inch than Stairway to Hell.”
Eddy didn’t set out to be a rock critic. Like a lot of kids who endure extreme childhood trauma — his mother died of ovarian cancer when he was 9; his dad committed suicide when he was 13 — Eddy was a committed smart-ass. He found his métier, and developed his talent for provocation, writing about baseball and penning smart-alecky editorials for his high school paper. Attending college on an ROTC scholarship, he began working as a sports writer and general news reporter for suburban newspapers in Missouri — the earliest piece in Rock and Roll Always Forgets is from that period, a profile of the region’s first rapper titled “Rhymed Funk Hits Area.”
Though Eddy had written music reviews in college, his rock-critic career began in earnest in 1984, when he sent a long, irate letter about the state of rock criticism to the Village Voice’s music editor, Robert Christgau, who put together the New York weekly’s annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. (The poll was so named in honor of Jazz & Pop magazine, whose weighted album ballots were the model for Christgau’s own.) Christgau printed some of it, and Eddy became one of the Voice’s star music freelancers, beginning a prolific career that took in everything from Spin and Rolling Stone to the little-distributed but freewheeling fanzines Radio On (run by Phil Dellio) and Why Music Sucks (Frank Kogan), where Eddy and a dozen or so other writers — including Rob Sheffield, Mary Gaitskill, and Luc Sante — would crack jokes and trade theories on then-current hit singles.
That approach would form the bedrock of Eddy’s own work as an editor at the Voice, until he was shown the door by new ownership. (He continues to freelance for the paper.) Shortly thereafter, Eddy worked for a year editing Billboard. In 2009, he and his wife, a freelance graphic designer, and their 3-year-old daughter moved to Austin, Texas, where he indulges in abundant cheap used vinyl: “If I come across something I haven’t heard in a dollar bin, I’m going to pick it up. Or yet another Charlie Rich record — I think I’ve got about 20. You can find them for 50 cents everywhere. I’m kind of reaching saturation point.”
Eddy’s aesthetic is in constant turnover, though blues-based hard rock tends to be at the core of his tastes, whether transmuted through Nashville country or big-beat electronica. He’s also a shameless fan of mainstream bubblegum pop, from Debbie Gibson’s first album, which Eddy championed vociferously in the Voiceafter years of being identified primarily as a metal and grungy underground rock guy, to Gillette’s “Short Dick Man.” He thinks “Ice Ice Baby” is one of the greatest singles of all time. And he has long dabbled in international styles, with a particular interest in Latin pop and rock en Español. But he seldom stays tied to one thing for very long, further infuriating purist sensibilities. He likes music that’s gaudy and ersatz, and refuses to apologize for it.
I get mad at people who say I’m a contrarian. That’s honestly not where I come from. It probably does sound that way to a lot of people. I’m never going to hear the end of Teena Marie being in the Top 10 of Stairway to Hell. People think I set out to pull a fast one. I’ve said this over and over again: I went to my shelves and pulled out every album that, at one point in heavy metal’s history, could be called heavy metal — basically, loud guitars. Call me expedient. Call me lazy; I didn’t go back and listen to every Iron Maiden album when I wrote that book. But I was not being contrarian. It’s not to pull a fast one. And it’s not to say that everybody else is wrong. It’s to say, “This is an interesting way to look at music.”
My opinion is that false metal is a kind of metal. That sounds like a joke, but to pop-metal fans, it was metal. It’s not like everybody agrees with each other anyway. To pretend there ever really has been a consensus among rock critics is a lie.
Eddy, who has tennis elbow, kept his arm on ice while we spoke on the phone. The conversation lasted nearly three hours. The format was simple: I read Chuck quotes from eight other writers, and we went from there. We spoke on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 20. I prompted him from time to time, and asked further questions; here I will mostly just provide some of the quotes I ran past him.
— Michaelangelo Matos
They call baseball a game because it’s too screwed up to be a business.
— Jim Bouton, Ball Four (1970)
Chuck Eddy: Bill James? George Will? Jim Bouton? Okay, right — from Ball Four. I don’t know why that didn’t come to me right away.
Michaelangelo Matos: You’re icing your elbow, for God’s sake!
Eddy: Icing is better than cortisone shots. Probably the first time I’d ever heard of cortisone shots, the first time I’d ever heard of greenies — which is what Bouton called amphetamines — the first time I’d heard of a lot of things, was reading that book when I was 9 or 10.
I was a baseball fan long before I was a music fan. But — and here’s probably a good analogy — I wasn’t a fan of any one particular team. I was really into categorizing. I thought it was really neat when the [Oakland] A’s had Herb Washington — he was a track star — and they added him to the roster as a designated runner. He was the only guy who had that position: the platypus of baseball positions. I think in 1965, the [Chicago] Cubs didn’t have a manager — they just had a player-coach. I thought that was really interesting.
I may have read Ball Four because he was writing about the Seattle Pilots, who I believe were the only baseball team — certainly the only team in the modern era — [that] only existed for one year. I certainly wasn’t interested in cortisone or greenies. There was something about his voice that I think helped give me a voice: I think he wrote like I presumed he talked, and he talked like a smartass.
By the mid-seventies, I’d lost interest in baseball. By that time — and this may be a coincidence — the salaries kind of exploded, after Curt Flood and the free-agent controversies, Catfish Hunter. There’s a good chance that the color of seventies baseball also attracted me — Oscar Gamble’s Afro, Luis Tiant’s Fu Manchu, Rollie Fingers’ handlebar mustache, the Oakland A’s gold-and-green uniforms, the San Diego Padres looking like a jar of mustard, or whatever, were things I definitely thought were fun about baseball. Maybe baseball was losing its fun by the time I stopped paying attention. I didn’t become interested in music until [after] high school. There are a couple of years in there where I didn’t care about baseball or music. It’s not like I traded one in for the other.
The only time I’ve really been interested in baseball in the last 30 years was the John Kruk-Mitch Williams “Wild Thing” Phillies in the early nineties. Even though I identify with the people who talk about the beauty of the math of the game, I think I also identify with the people who talk about the tedium of it.
Ball Four probably wasn’t my first introduction to drug culture. On the cover of Life magazine there would be drug-scare articles. I read Go Ask Alice somewhere in there — every kid in high school in the early seventies did. Hearing [that] Peter Tork of the Monkees was arrested for possessing marijuana, for some reason, really kind of scared me. When drugs would come up in discussion in school, I would get nervous. A couple times I got dizzy. I don’t know if I was imagining what drugs might feel like, or whatever, but there were a couple times that I fainted in class. The idea scared me. For me it may have been some kind of coping thing for what was going on in my family. My mom died in ’70 and my dad in ’72. There were a lot of changes going on in my life at that time. My interests were changing. I was going through adolescence. You leave childish things behind and pick up new childish things. [Laughs]
Matos: I think in straitened circumstances of any sort, you want to control things.
Eddy: And it does seem like drugs make you lose control a bit. I think I did not want to lose control. There were enough losses of control in my life. One reason I’ve never dropped acid is that I’m really scared of what would bubble back up. I closed a lot of doors, psychologically, to get through all that. There are things I’ve remembered since I’ve written this book that are traumatic. I’ve asked my stepmom: “Did this really happen? Because I haven’t thought about it for 35 years.” She’s like, “Yeah.”
My life has been, to a certain extent, compartmentalized. When I finish one chapter of my life, I close the door and move on to the next one, whether it’s the Army or whatever. In some ways, as a writer, that’s not good. I really wish that, for example, I could write a book about being in the Army. But even though it was only 30 years ago, there’s a lot I don’t remember. I’m stupid for not having kept a journal every day when I was in the Army. But the last thing I wanted to do after being on the base all day was to relive it in my head. It’s something I should sit down some day and try to see how much I do remember.
Exuberant, inventive, fiercely partisan and often utterly obsessive, the fans are the very foundation of the New Pop. Almost by definition, a New Pop group is one that can lay claim to a fanatical female following. Forget about groups like U2, Simple Minds or Big Country, however successful they might have been both in Britain and abroad over the last few years. They are boys’ bands — rock bands — and they don’t count.
— Dave Rimmer, Like Punk Never Happened: Culture Club and the New Pop (1985)
That’s got to be Simon Frith, right? Simon Reynolds wrote about New Pop stuff, but later. I bet that’s from the Culture Club book, right? I’ve never read it. I’ve always wanted to read that — what’s the guy’s name again?
I don’t know that anybody called it New Pop [in the U.S.]. I think there was some stuff — not Culture Club so much, but Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran and Depeche Mode — that would be called “techno-pop” then, or “synth-pop.”
What got me into music was an earlier new wave: 1979, guitar-and-Farfisa-band, Elvis Costello-Fabulous Poodles-Boomtown Rats, skinny-tie New Wave. The Cars had already hit. Cheap Trick, who were considered New Wave at that time, had already hit. You couldn’t avoid the Knack in 1979. “My Sharona” was just like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” only better. It just exploded. It was this unbelievable thing. It got so big so fast that summer that it was almost funny to us. I think it was like that everywhere, but Detroit especially. This was new wave that sounded like hard rock, with [John] Bonham-type drums.
By the time the MTV stuff happens, it’s not that I don’t like it. I bought “All of My Heart” by ABC as a 45. I bought “Karma Chameleon” and “Time” by Culture Club. Not to mention [Eddy Grant’s] “Electric Avenue” and [Musical Youth’s] “Pass the Dutchie.” I don’t even know if, by that time, I considered that New Wave. For me, New Wave had already been over by then. New wave was not synth music; it wasn’t even this sort of funny-haircut music. It was the guy in the Boomtown Rats wearing pajamas. [Laughs]
I didn’t start consciously listening to rock radio until about halfway through my freshman year at the University of Detroit, around the beginning of ’79. The first punk I would have heard later, maybe The Clash’s “I Fought the Law,” [which] was on the radio by the end of the year. Bizarrely, all three rock stations in Detroit played “Homicide” by 999. I don’t know if that was a hit anywhere else, but in Detroit it was a big commercial rock hit.
Matos: Every time I talk with someone from Detroit, I’m amazed at the odd matrix of taste that seems to hold sway there. Did the radio and local taste shape yours?
Eddy: I think very much so. I do get the idea that there was a certain kind of fast, energetic, rhythmic rock music that, in general, Detroit radio was more open to through the ’70s—for example, all those early Bob Seger singles. Most of them did not hit outside of Detroit, and those we’d hear a lot. But also guys like Ted Nugent and Brownsville Station — if “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” isn’t punk, it’s certainly punky.
At the same time, there were specialty New Wave shows on Sunday nights. You’d hear stuff that wasn’t necessarily in the regular rotation. So one of those AOR stations was playing cuts from [Prince’s] Dirty Mind, so Dirty Mind was connected to new wave in my head. I guess the boundaries already seemed loose to me. [The J. Geils Band’s] “Flamethrower” was a hit on the black stations, but not the white rock stations.
People have always said my thing with genres is some kind of shtick that I kind of pulled out of the blue. But it’s not. [Groundbreaking Detroit radio D.J.] the Electrifyin’ Mojo was one of the guys who taught me how genres are fluid. By the early eighties, Midnight Funk Association, his show on WGPR, was playing Prince, Kurtis Blow, [Afrika Bambaataa’s] “Planet Rock,” [mixed] in with “The Stroke” by Billy Squier, [the B-52’s] “Rock Lobster,” “Computer Games” by Yellow Magic Orchestra, lots of Kraftwerk, and “Cars” by Gary Numan. Mojo was instrumental.
I talk a lot in this book about the distinctions between rock and pop. I think the best [example] is when I’m talking to Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, who insists that he used to be a pop writer rather than a rock critic for Smash Hits. It’s weird — I never considered Duran Duran a rock band, but my wife Lalena, when she was growing up in the eighties, did, because they had guitars. I would have lumped them in with Depeche Mode. She would have lumped them in with the Fixx.
Matos: You also tend to quote people about how the music under discussion fits into people’s daily lives, and most of the time, they’re women.
Eddy: I found this with a lot of the women writers I published at the Voice: women will talk about music in the course of their life in a way that I’m not very good at. I tend to talk about music in terms of my record collection. Obviously, it’s completely a generality. I think that most of the women I quote in the articles you’re referring to talk about music in the course of their lives in a way men don’t.
[A] school kid who’s been moved out of the lunch line knows where Axl’s furious screams are coming from. A tiny old lady hobbling down the street knows. All human beings know, on some level, of those moments when you want to stick your hand up somebody’s ass and tear his guts out. To hear that fly out of the radio, streamlined by Axl’s high, carnal, glandularly defined voice, is an invitation to step into an electrical stream of pure aggression and step out again. This opportunity to connect, even indirectly, with an experience of realized power is going to be a seductive sensation for anybody.
— Mary Gaitskill, “An Ordinariness of Monstrous Proportions” (Details, 1992; reprinted in Rock She Wrote, Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonnell, eds., 1995)
Mary Gaitskill? I remembered she’d written a great Guns N’ Roses piece, and that sounded like her voice to me.
She ended up writing a couple pieces for me at the Voice. The scariest people for me to edit were her and Luc Sante, because I think of them being way beyond music critics. But in her books, she would work music in. I love that she has two pages in, I think, Two Girls, Fat and Thin where she’s basically talking about the Skid Row “18 and Life” video. I think she sees it as kind of homoerotic, two really close teenage boys, one who gets kicked out of his house and ends up playing with a gun, and I think shoots his friend, if I’m remembering it right. Just the way she writes about it — she doesn’t mention it by name, I don’t think. She just mentions watching this hair-metal video on MTV.
I think she also got the girlishness of Axl. I was always kind of amazed that people didn’t get [that]. It was there in his singing. It was there in his dancing, in his hair, in the lyrics of “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” which I think Frank Kogan once wrote were like a high-school girl’s creative-writing class poetry.
I definitely remember a long-lead review [Gaitskill] wrote about one Björk song, I believe from a soundtrack. I think I approached her to write that. I’m a fan of her short stories and her novels. You know where else she wrote? For Radio On — she was definitely part of that world. She knew Frank [Kogan] — they worked together at the Strand, I believe. I think Luc may have too. She knew Frank personally from the early eighties in New York.
Gaitskill was in two issues of Radio On: fall 1993 and summer 1994. [He pages through issues.] I’ve found her review of “Whoomp! There It Is.” She gave it a 5.0 [out of 10]. [reads] “Very fundamental, expansive, and populist. I’m not surprised it became a theme for marauding whirlpoolers. Anything expansive and fundamental can go that way, especially in these troubled times. One minute you’re minding your business, the next minute your hand’s in somebody’s vagina, or somebody’s hand’s in yours. There it is.” That would have been the last early-nineties record I’d have expected her to write about.
For America to have known the equivalent of “God Save the Queen,” Prince or Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson or Cyndi Lauper (maybe Cyndi) would have had to stand up in the midst of the election and the centennial and the Olympics and declare at the top of their lungs and in the rudest fashion imaginable, that the entire self-congratulatory nationalist orgy was a fraud, that Ronald Reagan was an inhuman begetter of morons, that his regime fostered a fascist plague, and that the spectacles it fostered were a portent of the very end of the world. That’s what Johnny Rotten’s taunting “No future / No future / No future for you” meant. More important, that’s what it was taken to mean.
— Dave Marsh, The Heart of Rock & Soul (1989)
It’s got to be Greil [Marcus], right?
That’s not Greil? Is it Dave Marsh? Is that from the singles book?
Matos: Yes, the “God Save the Queen” entry.
Eddy: I’ve moved a lot, in my defense. But why I got rid of The Heart of Rock & Soul I have no idea.
Sometimes I worry about turning into Dave Marsh. When Phil Dellio interviewed me in ’86 — and this is when I was still listening to loud SST/Homestead/Touch & Go noise-rock stuff — I talked about how in the early seventies, Marsh would write about, say, Black Sabbath or Sir Lord Baltimore — these early metal bands. And he would write so well about them, about noisy rock. I was complaining about how a few years later he seemed to hate Pere Ubu, and dismiss everything noisy as this artsy-fartsy non-rock music. I said, “I can’t imagine that ever happening to me. I’m always going to like this kind of stuff.”
Within a couple years — you see where this is going, right? [Laughs] — I was thinking this was some of the corniest music there was, and I was jumping ship to Debbie Gibson-land. Before long, I was hating indie rock more than I hated … I don’t know, papaya. I hate papaya. [Laughs] I think that it’s possible that my attitude toward some of the artier, less rocking streams of indie rock has a parallel to what he felt about some of the artier post-punk stuff in the early eighties.
We both have a certain kind of class resentment and an instinctive skepticism about coastal artsiness. We both have at times, I think, fallen back on this blue-collar, suburban-Detroit, tough-guy persona, maybe. [Though] I don’t think of myself as either blue collar or a tough guy.
I haven’t read Marsh in a long time. He’s sort of been out of the loop. I subscribed to [Marsh’s newsletter] Rock & Roll Confidential through most of the eighties. Dave put out a collection calledThe First Rock & Roll Confidential Report [in 1985] where I wrote one of my first essays on metal.
Matos: I want to ask you about that: You were in the U.S. Army at the time, and he was a leftist rabble-rouser.
Eddy: Yeah, but you know what? He definitely understood that there are class reasons that people enlist for. He probably would have thought that, if anything, it gave me more credence. He’s not somebody who would think, and I don’t know anybody who would think, that being in the military is reflective of one’s own politics.
My joke has always been that people at the Voice thought I was a fascist because I was in the Army, and the people in the Army thought I was a communist because I wrote for the Voice. But that’s an exaggeration, [even if] I was definitely straddling two different worlds.
It was a good time to be in the Army, compared to people who were before me and after me. There was nothing going on. There were little flare-ups — I think maybe Grenada or Lebanon or the Falklands. But there was nothing that would have affected [my Army unit]. If something happened with the Russians — with “the Reds,” as they were called — we were ready to hit the border within an hour-and-a-half, two hours, and set up signal ranks. So it’s not like they were going to take us anywhere else. You’re talking the tail end of the Cold War. Compared to the nineties, and ever since then — we were out in the field for a few weeks a year, but it was a garrison’s life, you know?
There was this return-of-American-rock thing at that time that was supposed to be in opposition to all these British synthesizer bands on MTV. A lot of the early writing even about bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements lumped them in with bands like Violent Femmes and the two Dels: the Del Fuegos and the Del-Lords: “These are real [laughs] meat-and-potatoey American bands, not that British stuff.” That’s ridiculous!
At the same time, I kind of identified with it. I wasn’t above calling certain musicians wusses. Is what I said about Animal Collective really that much different than what, say, Dave Marsh would have said about Spandau Ballet or somebody? That’s what I mean when I say I’m turning into Dave Marsh. One big thing [as well] is that I didn’t have MTV. I wasn’t seeing the “little faggot with the earring” that Dire Straits talk about — well, he’s British, I guess — in “Money for Nothing.” No, that stuff didn’t really bother me. It didn’t seem like it was taking over.
Matos: You began championing mainstream pop in the ’80s, and there’s a presumption that to like that, you must care about celebrity. You don’t; you argue for it as music.
Eddy: It’s also weird because I really am a rock guy. I really try to avoid using this word, but I judge stuff by how much it rocks. That’s why I wound up liking Nashville country so much in the last 10 years. I really start liking country when it turns into hard rock. Categories are fluid.
Mostly I’m interested in hearing pop artists talk about the same thing rock critics talk about: “So, Angus [Young of AC/DC], what is your connection to Louis Armstrong?” I don’t really care about their lives.
The music press used to belong to rock ’n’ roll, now it belongs to journalism. A journalist is not what I want to be. The difference between then and now isn’t a matter of format. The format has always been interviews, reviews, news and notes, occasional think pieces. But old Creem andFusion did something with the format — there was a lot of crap in those magazines, but nonetheless they created a world. Music magazines (with some exceptions) don’t do that anymore. I can’t see how people reading the Voice or Spin or Request (much less Rolling Stone orMusician or Entertainment Weekly or any of the zillion sub-Voice “alternative weeklies” around the country) would find in those magazines a world or life they would want to be a part of, or how people would find here much that they could use to create or imagine some romance or adventure in their life.
— Frank Kogan, 1991 Pazz & Jop comments (Village Voice, 1992)
This is obviously Frank. I’m going to play a little bit of devil’s advocate. Pitchfork, obviously, creates a world. It’s not my world. It’s not a world that I am remotely interested in. I’m not even saying that it’s bad. I don’t even know what the writing is like. I only know Pitchfork from their year-end lists. But I have no doubt that is a world in and of itself, a world that a lot of people — not just writers — wanted to be a part of. Spin, to a certain extent, may have been that as well.
But one thing that I will say about Creem is that I don’t think there has been any place to write about music since then — except for maybe some of the smaller fanzines like Radio On and Why Music Sucks — where there seemed like an internal conversation going on, an internal voice, but also individual voices. I’ve thought from the beginning that some of the other magazines since that started up in the eighties tried to stifle individual voices. In some ways, Creem was a pretty big inspiration for what I wanted the Voice music section to be. Maybe I pulled it off for a few years. I tried to make a section where pieces were commenting on each other, but also some crazy voices that weren’t necessarily the voice of music criticism, but were commanding in their own different ways.
To me, the most interesting thing in that Frank quote is the idea that he doesn’t want to be a journalist. In some ways, I’ve often felt that as well. But my roots are in journalism. It’s a bizarre contradiction. I used to joke back in the eighties that I went to trade school. I didn’t go to a college and learn something — I learned how to do something. Journalists write a certain way. I learned the inverted-pyramid style and the Wall Street Journal style. In the same way, I had to un-teach new writers who had just gotten out of grad school and wrote like academics. As an editor, I had to teach them to be conversational, the way that they were in their pitch emails.
It’s like how certain alternative-weekly publishers might like “the manly thing”: stomp the pavement and get out there and get a real story and you’re not going to sit at home thinking. I’ve never bought that. Journalism can be great writing. But most of the time, it’s just journalism.
I would say [Frank] had more of an effect on my writing than any other music critic over the last 25 years. I was defending indie rock to him, and he really convinced me a lot about what was happening in pop and dance music. Frank somehow spoke the same rock language as me. He convinced me somehow that, say, Latin freestyle was doing more of what I wanted rock to do than rock was, except for maybe hair metal. He really made me question my assumptions.
Show me an idea and I’ll show you what’s wrong with it, and six months later I’ll show you what’s wrong with my objections.
— Robert Christgau, Any Old Way You Choose It (1973)
That’s Frank Kogan, too. It’s not? [Pause] It’s Christgau! I read that recently — on the john. [Laughs] I don’t know if I believe it [about Christgau]. I believe it more about me. [Laughs] My first guess in my head was, “I must have written that at some point. But no, that doesn’t really sound like the words I would use.”
I’ve actually taken him to task for changing so few of his Consumer Guide scores over the years. I’m sure he’s being completely honest. But if it was me … [Laughs] I re-read the first two books, and there’s so much in there I disagree with. I look at the Pazz & Jop ballot I did last year, and I would probably change half of it. Already! There are already all sorts of places I can point out and say, “I don’t know if I agree with that now.”
My freshman year of college at the University of Detroit — I transferred to the University of Missouri my sophomore year — there was a poll among the music critics, which did not include me, at the Varsity News. That article referenced the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. I had never heard of The Village Voice; I had never heard of Pazz & Jop. For some reason it piqued my interest. So I pick up a copy or go to the library and look at a copy of the poll that year, 1978. This is when I was just starting to listen to new wave. I see all these bands I’ve never heard of, like Wire or Pere Ubu, not to mention people like David Johansen, and Funkadelic finished toward the bottom of the Top 30. Seeing the math of it made me really want to solve it. It was like a new puzzle for me, or a code to break.
I think ’81 is the first year I voted. The third year I sent an 11-page letter. A big chunk of it was taking apart what I thought was wrong with rock criticism at that point. There were tons of references to his previous Pazz & Jop essays, which I’m guessing probably flattered him. He printed a section of that ballot, which I reproduce in the new book. He quoted me in the lead paragraph of his Pazz & Jop essay. He said my essay had inspired him to start sharing the Pazz & Jop section with writers. I wasn’t the only person who was sending comments in. He’d just never printed comments as comments before.
I think I just wrote it to vent. I was in the Army and I wanted to talk to somebody about music, I guess. I don’t really know what my motive was. But I remember getting a check in the mail before I saw the section. He asked me at that point to start writing for the Voice. The first piece I wound up writing was about Bad Religion’s Into the Unknown. I had written music reviews for the paper in college. Christgau started me writing music reviews for money, but he also started me writing music reviews, period, because of his Pazz & Jop essay in 1978. So indirectly, he was my inspiration to begin with. People used to talk about me being some kind of Bangs wannabe. I was like, “No, I’m a Christgau wannabe.” [Laughs]
I think Pazz & Jop shows up more in this book than even in Christgau’s books. But I think it’s over for me now, which is sad. I think my piece [that] ends the book [about the 2009 Pazz & Jop] feels like the last of me caring about what happens. Which doesn’t mean I won’t vote in it. I’ll always be interested. But this year I felt detached from it in a way I’ve never felt detached from it as long as I’ve been writing about music.
Pazz & Jop was Christgau’s, [but] it belonged to me in some way for seven years. You have to understand — this is something I haven’t really talked about with almost anybody — long before I was at the Voice, in some ways my year — or at least, the last few months of my year — revolved around Pazz & Jop, almost to an unhealthy extent, in the way a kid’s end-of-year might revolve around Christmas.
I would start working on ballot comments probably in the late summer. I would work way more on them than on any piece I was actually publishing, which is probably why so many ended up in this book. I was at my wit’s end to see if they were going to print my comments and ballot. It was that important. There were years where they didn’t print my ballot, or only printed one or two of my comments, where I got outright depressed. I don’t know whether or not I thought, “Oh my god, it’s over.”
If I did get it printed — especially the years they printed my albums and my singles and my EPs — I was on cloud nine. Now, everybody’s ballot is visible online anyway. Back then, somehow I was one of the select few. I placed a lot of self-worth on that. It was like, “Is it going to be a good Christmas or a bad Christmas? Am I going to get that bike or am I not going to get that bike?”
There are plenty of books about every other pop subculture — grunge, disco, techno, rap, punk, alt-country — but virtually nothing about 1980s hard rock. All you find are a few rock encyclopedias, a handful of “serious” metal examinations, and maybe something by Chuck Eddy.
— Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City (2001)
That’s Klosterman, who wrote the introduction to my book. I wish for the cover, his name was in much larger print than my name: “FOREWORD! BY! CHUCK! KLOSTERMAN!” and then in much smaller letters, “book by Chuck Eddy.”
Michaelangelo Matos is the author of Sign 'O' the Times (Continuum, 2004) and is working on a history of American rave in the '90s. He lives in Brooklyn.
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