LET’S NOT SAY GOODBYE… LET’S JUST SAY SO LONG FOR NOW…
Imagine you’re riding up a roller coaster. Slowly you ascend to the top. The intensity level builds, then over the pinnacle you go, plummeting downward, feeling as though the car is going to go off the track or completely out of control…”
Those were the first words I ever wrote for Maximum Rocknroll, in issue No. 15 (July ’84) and it was for a piece on the legendary (not a word I use lightly) Massachusetts band SIEGE. I’d met and interviewed the band a few months earlier and they asked me to write an intro of sorts. I’d been reading the zine since the beginning. I can’t recall if writing for them had crossed my mind up to that point. I wanted to write something that captured the feeling I had the first time I saw them play. Maybe the writing was a tad pretentious but I wanted it to stand out more than “Siege are a fast hardcore punk band from Weymouth, MA.” And it got my foot in the proverbial door, as I soon began contributing the Boston scene reports on a fairly frequent basis, as well as pieces on such bands as Rhode Island’s VICIOUS CIRCLE and Bostonians SORRY. Speaking of the latter, check them out if you never have—their second album The Way it Is is one of the most overlooked discs of the 1980s. I was flattered when the coordinator at the time, who I knew from his old band, asked me to come on board as a columnist in 2005. I think I’ve only missed a handful of them over the past 14 or so years and that was mainly due to family emergencies. I wanted to make sure I got at least something published every month, while I was slacking on my own zine/blog—which I still am, but that’s another story.
I wrote that SIEGE piece at a time when punk became a way of life for me, so to speak, or at least an escape from a dreary day-to- day existence, spending eight hours a day working at a job I hated, in a bank. Putting on that fucking shirt and tie every day and, at that time, working in a windowless office with co-workers’ whose chain smoking rivaled the cast of Mad Men.
At least there were a few fringe benefits. When I worked in that office (the loan department), I’d open the envelopes with the loan payments and there would be at least a few uncanceled stamps. There was a xerox machine nearby so when I had the office to myself or at least the boss was away, I could make copies of flyers for my penpals all over the world. They probably figured I wasn’t too into the job because I eventually got demoted back to teller.
Even before I wrote the SIEGE article, I was already making contacts through the scene reports and classified ads. The high point of the day would be going home from work and seeing what treasures waited by the mailbox, then excitedly carrying them up the stairs to my one room studio apartment and immediately putting a record on the turntable and clearing away any residual misery from the last several hours. I can’t stress enough how important that was and how it kept me more or less sane.
It’s really sad to see the decline of print publications. I used to get a fair number of zines in the mail but that’s pretty much dried up to nothing. And more publications are going online or offering either print or digital versions. It’s understandable, because mailing and printing costs have become astronomical. So I have to give respect to individuals who still crank out print publications. Welly has kept his Artcore print zine going since 1986. German zine Trust started in 1986 and is up to almost 200 issues, printing on a bi-monthly basis. Jack Rabid (an early MRR columnist) still publishes The Big Takeover. I don’t like about 95% of the music he covers but he knows his shit and I admire his dedication. I discovered some favorite bands through his writing, especially LEATHERFACE. He was an early champion of that band and right on the money.
I also have to give a tip of the hat to Razorcake, who continue to produce a quality read every other month, filled with interviews of punk musicians from the past and present. I have a huge pile I haven’t read yet because, to be honest, it’s tough to find the time. Story of my life—books, records, magazines—I have a backlog of all of them. Once in awhile, I’ll open one and read an interview or two. I’ll think maybe it’s time to throw them out because there’s little chance I’ll ever catch up but it’s hard to do. A lot of effort went into those publications and the people at Razorcake, most of whom are lifers (some of them got their start with Flipside or wrote for this esteemed publication back in the ’80s and ’90s), have always been supportive of my writing over the years and you can tell they’re doing it for the right reasons. They’re not cutting and pasting press releases and passing it off as music journalism or doing “premieres” on their websites. They’re not acting as an arm of a music or publicity company.
And, man, there’s some wretched music writing out there these days. To be honest, there’s always been bad music writing. There aren’t a whole lot of Lester Bangs or Mick Farrens out there anymore. If you don’t know who I’m talking about, look it up. Or read my column because I’ve shamelessly stolen from both over the years (shhhhh).
The terrible writing not only applies to reviews but also for press releases. Someone must have sold or given my name to dozens of publicists because my email inbox is clogged day after day with solicitations for music that is far outside of my scope of coverage. We’re talking hip-hop, Americana, folk, dance music, etc. Once in awhile, I’ll write back and ask them if they’ve actually seen my blog, read my columns or listened to my radio show. There are a few who are at least in the same ballpark—companies that feature some punk, metal, industrial and so-on. I’ll occasionally bite and find good music for the radio show. Of course, these are “digital” promos, which I still generally won’t review.
Speaking of cutting and pasting, one way I’ve been amusing myself and others lately is posting passages from some of the most ridiculous press releases that come through the inbox on my Facebook page. These reek of pretentious drivel that usually amounts to impenetrable word salad and leaves you scratching your head wondering what they fuck it is they’re talking about? I know the SIEGE piece I wrote in 1984 is also hyperbolic and my reviewing has been criticized as “useless” by a few people but, as I said a few columns ago, you can’t please everyone.
Anyway, this release, received from a PR firm a few months ago and originally published by the band in question’s record label, pretty much takes the cake. The introductory paragraph says they’re a blackened hardcore outfit. But then it goes on to say: “While lyrically ruminating in the abstract emptiness of an impervious void and grappling with paradoxical duality, the auditory gloom of (album title) conjures sorrowing burial strings that furiously discharge into an onslaught of punishing resonance wrought with crushing despair, depression, and scavenging hopelessness.”
Shall I continue? “Pummeling blasts and D-beats pound into peripherally orbiting shadows of the pixelated black, beneath the pulverizing density of nihilistic bass distortion in a mournful offering of somber funeral strains; the digested celestial nothingness of the eaten, frozen in dimensions of cyclical nooses and gnawing bacterial ether. Conceived incarnations of sorrowful mists from the harvest, bereaving the morbid light in which we suffer.”
I think they could have saved time by just saying they’re a blackened hardcore outfit. I might have added they mixed hardcore, death metal and crust into a gloomy concoction. There you go. In fact, it’s not really that bad. The songs are on the long side—the shortest one is still nearly five minutes long—but I could see some of you who like the heavier stuff enjoying this (I’ll spill it—the album is Lament and the band is TOTALED). I might have written a bit more but I think it conveys things effectively. There’s really no sense in being as verbose as the author of the press release since I don’t get paid by the word. Hell, I don’t get paid anything.
There were some funny responses to it in the thread on my page. One individual said it looked like something from Mad Libs: Metal Edition. Someone else succinctly called it “word diarrhea.” Rick Sims, from the late great DIDJITS, opined, “Whatever happened to ‘It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it??’” If you don’t get the reference, Google “Dick Clark good beat” and you’ll find out. While you’re at it, go on YouTube and type in “American Bandstand PIL.” That was one of the more surreal appearances on Clark’s long- running show. After that, look for YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA’s appearance on “Soul Train,” where they do a very cool cover of ARCHIE BELL & THE DRELLS’ “Tighten Up.” Seeing a very confused Don Cornelius interview them is pretty humorous. He asks YMO’s drummer/vocalist Yuki Takahashi about influences. Yuki mentions KRAFTWERK and asks Don if he knows them. Don goes, “Of course. Hey, this is Big Don here, brother!” but then he admits he’s not familiar with the record.
Music criticism is rife with trite phrases, tropes, clichés and so on. Michael Azerrad is the author of the 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life—Scenes from the American Underground 1981-1991. I’ve only read it once and that was when I got it but it was more or less an overview for people who generally think nothing happened musically between the SEX PISTOLS and NIRVANA. The chapters center around individual bands and covers the “big names” of the ’80s era, like BLACK FLAG, MINOR THREAT, MINUTEMEN, HÜSKER DÜ, MISSION OF BURMA, SONIC YOUTH, and BUTTHOLE SURFERS. It gives a somewhat adequate overview of what happened then. MRR is mentioned and the bibliography includes a number of underground publications, including yours truly’s. But it doesn’t go too far underground. DIY is only given a passing mention and not always in a positive fashion. Andit’scriminalthatabandasimportantasthe WIPERS doesn’t garner any attention at all.
In recent years, Azerrad has a Twitter account called @RockCriticLaw, which basically pokes fun at music critic crutches and clichés—overused expressions like “seminal,” “criminally underrated” or “angular.” Writing things like, “Quickly strummed guitar chords with a lot of distortion must be compared to a buzzsaw” or that a singer with a raspy voice has been “gargling with broken glass.” Those tweets have been collected into a book called Rock Critic Law: 101 Unbreakable Rules for Writing Badly About Music. It’s Azerrad’s first since Our Band Could Be Your Life. It’s a fast, funny read and it also strikes very close to home because I’m guilty of using many of those expressions and phrases. I’ve called drummers “sticksmen” and referred to second albums as “sophomore efforts.” However, I have never used the term seminal in any column or blog I’ve done in this century. And I’ve only used “visceral,” a word that someone once said I use too often, 15 or 20 times in the past 14 or 15 years. Once a year? Not too bad, I say.
Azerrad’s not completely innocent, either. In a Slate magazine article, Matthew Kassel decided to investigate Azerrad’s books to see if he’d “obeyed” his own laws and Kassel finds that he’s disobeyed about 18 of them— saying that undistorted guitars are “chiming” or “ringing” or “jangling,” saying a vocalist is “prowling” across a stage” or a bass player is the only musician who can be “nimble.” He got busted for those and I’ve used them as well. I use “post-punk” as a common description and say those bands are spiky, angular or arty quite frequently. In fact, the number is probably a lot higher for me than Azerrad. I didn’t count how many because, well, it’d be too embarrassing. My only defense is, after 35+ years of writing about music that’s usually in a limited stylistic ballpark, at least in the grand musical scheme of things (another cliché! Ah-HA! You’re so busted, Al), it’s sometimes tough to come up with new and creative ways to say things and not descend into the maelstrom of pretentiousness (Oops… I did it again!).
I’d better quit while I’m still ahead. Thanks to everyone I’ve worked with at MRR, both past and present, even those I’ve had the (very) infrequent disagreement or difference of opinion with. And I hope that I’ll be able to continue contributing online.
If anyone wants to get in touch, my contact info/web pages remain the same: Al Quint, PO Box 43, Peabody, MA 01960, subvox82@ gmail.com, sonicoverload.net and subvox. blogspot.com
This column and every project I’ve ever done or will do are in loving memory of Jane Simpkin (1965–2001) and Chelle LaBarge (1966–2015)