February 13th, 2006

Half Mast?

Did Madonna die or something? Because I've been hearing her music constantly since Steven played that new video of hers for me when I was in the Bay Area. I'm sitting here in my office and one song after another keeps wafting through my open window. It's better than smoke, I suppose, but kind of eerie, since I thought no one listened to her anymore. Maybe it's part of a promotional campaign to accompany the reissue of Sonic Youth's Ciccone Youth album. In other related news, I should have bought that Sex book when I had the chance. How's yours holding up, cpratt?

Another Fifteen Minutes

A few weeks ago someone asked to interview me for AZNightBuzz, an internet partner of the Arizona Daily Star that focuses on local entertainment news. Although I was baffled by the request -- "Why would anyone want to interview me? I'm an interviewer, not an interviewee." -- I consented to do it. I figured it would be instructive to be on the other side of the tape recorder. And the prospective interviewer was someone who took a class with me back in 2002 and clearly enjoyed reading things like The Baffler and David Boring that I assigned that semester in a rare fit of teaching the sort of material I actually work on myself. Still, I figured that the piece would get canned for being of too little interest. I'm hardly entertainment news, after all.

The interview itself was a lot of fun and long, as tommix, who joined us for a while can attest, and a pleasant enough experience on its own terms that I wasn't worried about whether it would be published or not. The author sent me a draft for review when I was in the Bay Area, but it came through garbled and I was too preoccupied to ask for a resend in a timely fashion. Besides, I figured, it might do me good to be less controlling of my words and image. Plenty of artists have trusted me to do right by them without asking to give final approval of my copy. Maybe it was time for me to do the same.

That decision led to me forgetting that the piece was out there for a bit. And then last night I got an e-mail from my friend Annalee, who linked to it and pointed out a factual error that needed correcting. Then I went to my friend Steven's blog and saw that he had already written an entry about it. Talk about fast movers! So I went to read the piece and was pleasantly surprised with the way it turned out, even though there were some minor glitches in the editing process and a few insignificant factual errors aside from the one Annalee pointed out. None of the latter were the author's fault, really, since I had talked for long enough, especially about Bad Subjects, to generate considerable confusion.

[UPDATE, 2/14/06: The editor commented below. I sent him my belated edits. The piece now looks even better. I'm keeping the paragraph below as it was originally, in keeping with my archival impulse. But my mild regret at not getting back to the author before the piece went live has been vanquished.]

I felt bad for a bit, thinking that I could have caught most of those infelicities before publication and also smoothed over some rough patches in my own statements. But then I took a deep breath and reminded myself the reality of journalism is that precision is a luxury. If I wanted a real interview experience, as I'd initially told myself, this was what I had to content myself with. Besides, the points I had tried to make most forcefully came through clearly, if in the somewhat ineloquent circling speech that characterizes me in conversation:
Along with helping him find a niche in the Arizona music scene and giving him a fond journalism memory, Bertsch believes that the New Times’ restricted word count taught him how to make a concise yet solid point – a valuable lesson that he also discovered through reading the works of imprisoned Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci and Walter Benjamin, who were both forced to distill complex ideas into short pieces. This is partly what makes Bertsch such a unique and powerful music journalist. Instead of only citing Spin, Rolling Stone and other rock journalism mainstays as inspiration, Bertsch sees and understands the link between world literature and, say, CMJ. Similarly, he believes that the works he read when he was young taught him how to think about art and aesthetics in the world of academia.

And what about being a professor? Interestingly enough, Bertsch says that working in academia taught him how to handle reportedly tough interviewee Richard Hell. “I was warned [by other music critics] that the interview would be a difficult… And so I just decided that I would talk to him about his work in the same way that I would an academic colleague. I said to him, ‘I noticed in your lyrics that you do this, this and this,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, you noticed that!’ So, I won him over.”

Indie legend Jad Fair of Half Japanese was another tough interviewee. He was “like talking to a post. Plus, his wife is an animal rights activist. He needs a little more meat… metaphorically,” Bertsch recalls. Other famous names in indie rock weren’t quite such a challenge to interview. “With Thurston Moore, you could fart and he would talk.”

Bertsch’s current projects include working as the music editor of Tikkun and writing a book on punk. One of the book’s main themes is that many people learn more about how to think and write about culture from the 300-word music reviews they read as teenagers than anything else because reviews are short and about something they care deeply about – two factors that don’t make the writing intimidating. “I think the average 17-year-old can read a review in Rolling Stone and think, ‘I can argue with that.’ It’s that sense of empowerment that activates those words in that review or feature and enacts some sort of aesthetic sensibility that would be harder to get if you were training yourself to be tasteful.”
Although I wish I'd been a little clearer in formulating my point about the value of restricted word counts and how it relates to Gramsci and Benjamin, I can live with direct quotes like, "Plus, his wife is an animal rights activist. He needs a little more meat. . . metaphorically," which captures a catty mode that I share too rarely and, "It's that sense of empowerment that activates those words in that review or feature and enacts some sort of aesthetic sensibility that would be harder to get if you were training yourself to be tasteful," which sounds like me channeling Joel channeling me, a fusion that has always made me happy and which my recent trip to see him and Jennifer at their belated wedding reception reinvigorated. Alright, time to go listen to more airborne Madonna. And to await Jad Fair's angry response. . .

Eastly Beasts

I managed to catch the end of the Connecticut-Villanova game, though I wish I'd seen the whole thing. Man, the Big East has some very, very good teams this year. You watch the Huskies blow a team out and think, "No one else is going to beat them if Rudy Gay continues to show up." But then Rudy has a big night and the Wildcats still prevail. I've always been partial to both teams as fall-backs after my dad's alma mater Syracuse has been vanquished in conference or tournament play. Tonight I was rooting for Villanova, because they were underdogs even as the fourth-ranked team in the nation at home and, more importantly, because they regularly play a rotation with only one player much taller than I am, yet still manage to outrebound teams with big front lines, of which Connecticut is this year's cream of the crop. As someone who has been following the Big East since before it received an automatic NCAA bid, through good times and bad, I'm ever so pleased to see the conference at the highest point it has managed since 1985. Sure, I'm first and foremost a Pac-10 guy. But family allegiances matter and the Big East comes second. And you know, thewhitaker, how much I like West Virginia's game.