Miscellaneous - Interview
by Lisa Torem
published: 4 / 12 / 2010
Chicago-based journalist and music writer Jim DeRogatis talks to Lisa Torem about his latest book, 'The Beatles Vs the Stones'
Jim DeRogatis is currently a full-time lecturer in the English Department at Columbia College Chicago and the co-host of 'Sound Opinions' (www.soundopinions.org) which is a nationally syndicated rock ‘n’ roll talk show. DeRogatis blogs about music at Vocalo.org, and spent 15 years at'The Chicago Sun-Times' as their pop music critic. He has authored 'The Velvet Underground; An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side' and 'Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs'. This Chicago-based journalist has recently co-authored 'The Beatles Vs the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock 'n' Roll Rivalry' with another Chicago-based, author/music journalist Greg Kot, with whom he co-hosts 'Sound Opinions'. Kot has been the rock music critic at 'The Chicago Tribune' since 1990 and has also written: 'Wilco: Learning How to Die 'and 'Ripped: The Digital Music Revolution'. DeRogatis speaks to Pennyblackmusic about his formative years as an eager and ambitious journalist, his fascination with Lester Bangs, his recent career change, his working relationship with Greg Kot and how the two, renowned music critics managed to create a comprehensive, pop culture bible that initially came about through the publisher’s simple question - “What would you rather be, a Beatle or a Stone?” Jim DeRogatis is witty, frank and articulate. It’s apparent that he knows his subject matter, but he’s still more than willing to entertain other points of view. PB: Jim, you have written extensively on music journalist Lester Bangs and interviewed him when you were quite young. But, why did you go to such great lengths to interview another journalist rather than a rock musician if music was your primary interest? JD: I was a senior in high school in a Catholic regional school for boys in Jersey City and all of the smart kids took Masterpieces of Western Literature and the football team took journalism because it was short sentences and I took both and I was driving my journalism teacher crazy with all these questions such as "What is the new journalism?", "What is investigative reporting in the way of Woodward and Bernstein and Silkwood?" and "What is the role of the critic versus that of a journalist?’ and he was like, "Look, you are a pain in the butt. You got an A. Stop coming to class. Just go interview a hero in your chosen field. Write it up and you’re done, okay?" And, to me, as an obsessive young music fan, you know, I collected records voraciously, played in bands and I would go on to play music on college radio and I wrote about music, and to me they were all the same extension of the same impulse, you know. As much as a hero to me as any of the musicians I loved was Lester Bangs because of the way in which he explained the importance of the music and the context and how it shaped the world and there’s that line in the Velvet Underground song, "Jenny says her life was changed by rock and roll," (Velvet Underground: ‘Rock and Roll) and that’s how I felt about reading Lester Bangs. I set out to interview him. I spent a long day with him. It was formative in my life and eventually in my career. Two weeks later he died. So it made a heck of an impact on me. In 2000 I wrote his biography. Six or nine months after that came out I had the pleasure of watching Philip Seymour Hoffman, who’d been walking around the set of ‘Almost Famous’ listening to the tape, of me, at 17, interviewing Lester in order to get the speech patterns right. Cameron Crowe (contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, American screenwriter and director of 'Almost Famous') and I have been friends for a long time because Cameron met him when he was 17 in 1972 and I met him when I was 17 in 1982 and it changed both of our lives. PB: Both you and Lester encountered problems working at 'Rolling Stone' magazine in regards to writing negative reviews. Is there a thin line between the truth and what is considered fair music criticism? JD: Increasingly, the problem we have in criticism is that it’s the mere spouting of opinions. It’s not criticism and critics are increasingly hand strung in being critical. If a movie critic at a major daily newspaper or magazine says ‘Avatar’ is a piece of crap his editors are going to look at him and say, "Yeah, but it’s really popular." You know, popular doesn’t mean good and I don’t think any critic worth his or her salt sets out to convince people that something that they loved was crap. Even the nine-year-old Justin Bieber fan – if Justin Bieber makes her life better, well, God bless her. There’s not enough beauty in the world. I just don’t want her to consume it in the unthinkingly way people eat at McDonalds rather than go to the great mom and pop restaurant down the block just because it’s there and it’s convenient. You know if you love it truly and not just because it’s on the Disney Channel and on TV and on radio and all the teen magazines shove it down your throat; well, good for you. But, don’t just consume it unthinkingly. Art is way too important for that. PB: You recently made a huge career change. You’re teaching full-time at Columbia College. How has it been interacting with students rather than engaging in the solitary pursuit of writing? JD: You know, as a debt to Lester – if this guy could spend half a day and spend it with this 17 year-old, high school kid - you know, I’ve always accepted invites regularly from Columbia, from Northwestern, from U. of C., from De Paul, from Loyola, from a lot of the high schools. You know, I’ve done it. I’ve enjoyed it. I was teaching one course a semester for a year at Columbia. When they offered to bring me on as a full-time lecturer, it was too good to pass up. Coming as it did in the wake of 'The Sun-Times' nearly disappearing last November and everybody’s salaries being cut 19 percent and the entire business of journalism is being remade and it’s going to be shaped by the kids who are in those desks at Columbia now, I think it’s a really good time to not be at a daily newspaper and to watch what the new model is going to be and maybe help shape it by either educating or by blogging like I am and to not ever have to go see a Mariah Carey concert on deadline again. PB: You wrote ‘Time on you Mind: Four Decades of Psychedelic Rock.’ What intrigues you about psychedelia? JD: Well, I’m sort of schizophrenic and in order to be a daily newspaper pop music critic or to host a show like 'Sound Opinions' you have to be interested in everything. There really is no genre that I don’t enjoy the best of at least. But, I’d say I have a particular passion for psychedelic rock and punk rock, both equally – they’re kind of at diametric opposite ends of the spectrum, one is rolling in the gutter and the other is about opening the door to Heaven and the white light. So, I don’t think you’re well-balanced unless you have a little of both. So, that’s kind of my approach. PB: How did you and Greg (Kot) narrow down the categories for your new book, ‘The Beatles Vs The Rolling Stones’ after being approached by Dennis Pernu (Press Editor at Voyageur Press-Ed)? It’s such a broad theme. JD: We were meeting with him and I think, in his head he was hoping one of us would say, "Beatles" and one of us would say, "Stones." He asked us the question, "Who’s cooler, the Beatles or the Stones?" and it takes both of us about point one second to say, "The Stones" (DeRogatis assumes a coarse tone). But, that’s if you say, "Who’s cooler?" Now, if you say, who’s the most influential band, who was better in the studio versus on stage, who was the better instrumentalist, who is the better bass player, who was the better drummer, then you got a back and forth match. Kot and I have never had trouble arguing about anything even when it’s something we generally agree on. We agree for different reasons or disagree for different reasons. So, it’s just hammering back and forth our love of the bands; the things that we valued and disliked; it just kind of all took shape pretty much like the radio show does. PB: The Beatles seem to be more renowned for clever word play; ‘I am the Walrus’ or ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun.’ JD: There are great Stones lyrics, too. Like, ‘Salt of the Earth’ – it’s an amazing paean to the working man. But, the Beatles were traditional pop songsmiths; craftsmen. They’re part of a long tradition that would include the Brill Building and back, you know, centuries back. So the Beatles were more pop. They cared about the creation of the song and the Stones were more rock; they cared about that explosion of energy. I think that’s kind of the basic difference. I draw it as the Stones were the hottest one-night stand you could ever have and the Beatles are a really pleasant dinner date chaperoned by her parents, and they both have their charms. PB: In terms of band management, you and Greg discussed Andrew Oldham, who rallied around Charlie Watts and Brian Epstein, who brought George Martin into the mix, but had the unfortunate task of dismissing Pete Best. Both men widely influenced their band's career paths, but why didn’t the Stones get their own George Martin? Also, weren’t the Stones simply piggy-backing on the Beatles in terms of writing original music? JD: Yeah. They got to the party later, no doubt about it. But the Stones put the primacy on live performance and it was hardly any time at all before the Beatles could really realistically do that anymore. I think that the Stones never came up with a George Martin because they didn’t care. I mean Keith Richards has a short attention span and I don’t think he wanted to spend six months in the recording studio. You know, he wanted to get out there and raise hell. The Beatles, it came to be that that was the only place they could be truly creative. They couldn’t perform live anymore so, you know, I think it just sort of worked out that way. But, we spent a lot of time on the managers because when you realize that the Stones were upper-middle class kids. Jagger came out of the London School of Economics and Richards was in art school and Brian Jones was a prep school boy who realized, look, the Beatles have got this mop top, nice, witty, smart boy thing down perfectly, right? There’s no room for us to compete with that so we have to go in the opposite direction. Oldham very wisely positioned them as the anti-Beatles, whereas the Beatles were a rough and tumble Liverpool street-gang who Brian cleaned up, took them out of Hamburg, off the Reeperbahn and said, "Stop cursing, stop spitting, stop being obnoxious punks at least through ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help’." So, it really was a brilliant case of marketing in both bands that first established them in the public imagination. I think it always bothered Lennon (Laughs). He knew he was more of a punk and could take both Richards and Jagger in a fight. Jagger and Richards knew that they were much more athletic than the bad boys that they’d been portrayed as. But, obviously the image worked well for both of them. PB: Oldham had asked the Beatles to write, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ Was he trying to create some sort of camaraderie between the two bands? JD: I think there was a lot of admiration between both bands. There is no doubt about it. You look at ‘Rock and Roll Circus’, the TV special and Jagger is thrilled to have Lennon sitting there right in front of him. I think that the feud was played up in some ways. On the other hand, these are huge egos and incredible, creative talents and there’s no denying that they were competitive. They spurred each other on and made each other better. PB: Don’t you feel that the fan base was also split gender-wise? Girls adamantly claimed certain Beatles for themselves and even argued about who would be a better boyfriend. This became part of their identity. Did the Stones invite that kind of exclusive adoration? JD: I don’t know but I think to say you’re a Stones fan meant something. PB: But, a Beatles fan would fight for her particular Beatle – JD: Oh, which one? Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s true. That’s true. I think the Stones were more of an entity than the Beatles; no doubt about that. Either you bought the whole Stones thing or you didn’t and so I don’t think you played favorites. Nobody said they wanted to be Charlie. PB: Why aren’t there all these Stones Fests? There are Beatles Fests. JD: I think that the Stones have done themselves a huge disservice by not breaking up. They have essentially sucked since 1978. The last beginning-to- end, good, undeniable great Stones album was ‘Some Girls’. They have now sucked for three times as long as they were brilliant. They throw their own Stones Fest. It’s called their "once every three year tour" for which you can pay the privilege of $350 and up to go see it. If the Stones are going to celebrate their legacy they’re going to do it themselves and make all the money from it themselves. They don’t share with nobody. Whereas if the Beatles aren’t around, they can’t tour anymore. Although, it must be said as hard as I just was on the Stones, that Beatles Incorporated is a distasteful organization to me. They have now sold us the same music three dozen times; LPs, cassettes, 8 tracks, CDs, remastered CDs, Box sets, ‘Best of’ and now they make a big deal out of putting it on i-Tunes. Personally, I think having bought all these Beatles albums three, four, five times, just in my own life, it would have been nice if they said, for six months, all the Beatles music is free. Download it and put it in your car, put it on your Ipod. Here’s our gift to you and then we’ll charge the new generation for it. I mean you’ve got the Beatles Cirque du Soleil, You’ve got Beatles on Broadway, going back, you’ve got the Beatles in the movies…It’s like really. Really? You guys will never spend that money in a hundred lifetimes that you’ve made. And all you need is love. PB: Jim, you said in the book, regarding ‘Please, Please Me’ that Lennon was holding back but that it was also one of his greatest vocal performances. What’s the verdict? JD: Did I say that? I don’t know. I think what’s best about ‘Please, Please Me’ is that it’s a song about mutual masturbation and that tends to get overlooked. It tends to get overlooked that the Beatles could be as filthy as the Stones. I think when I realized that it kind of blew my mind and so did, ‘Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?’, although that didn’t age particularly well. It’s only amusing when you’re 13. So, I think Lennon held back on that song and a lot of those early songs. I think it took him a while to really not care anymore and to let go and when he did it was incredible. Whereas McCartney always delivered what the song needed and so something like ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ was an amazing vocal performance. McCartney could play the rocker when he thought that was needed. McCartney could play the good pop songsmith when that was needed. I think he actually prefers the latter. I don’t think he likes to shout and rock out that much. PB: The Yardbirds used sitar. Brian Jones played sitar in ‘Paint it Black’, yet the Beatles really got the credit for using this exotic instrument in their recordings. JD: Yeah, I think that the Stones; their virtuosity kind of gets underplayed in the studio. I mean, just even look at the way ‘Satanic Majesties’ was dismissed. And, yes, it’s kind of a mess, but then so was Sgt. Pepper. So I think some of the psychedelic era, or ‘Paint it Black’ – it’s just ferocious. The Stones don’t get the credit for being as good as they were sometimes in the studio. But, that’s because the shorthand is the Beatles were the studio band and the Stones were the live band and just like the shorthand is 'Sgt.Pepper' is the Beatles masterpiece whereas real Beatlemaniacs, like you and me - I bet you any money you’re going to say, ‘Rubber Soul’ or ‘Revolver’ or ‘Abbey Road.’ Nobody actually likes 'Sgt. Pepper' as their favorite Beatles album. PB: “Jagger had the sense to laugh at himself as an upper-middle-class Englishman imitating sharecroppers and hillbillies,” is a caption written below a photograph of Jagger in the book. We could add that Jagger’s early success was based as a wealth of material American black performers had originated and that Jagger greatly admired them, but was aware they were separate entities. Was Lennon able to poke fun at himself in this way? JD: I think generally speaking he was more of a miserable individual and if you see ‘Nowhere Boy’ – what a great movie - and it’s easy to understand why. I think he was a deeper thinker and he was more troubled and I don’t think he was as quick to laugh generally. But, if you read his book, listen to some of his lyrics, he was the first Beatle to question, you know, the business of being a Beatle in several songs and I think he could laugh at himself, but I think he took the world more seriously, and Jagger takes on things seriously and it’s exactly what you would expect from a student from the London School of Economics. Yeah, money. That’s what he takes seriously. Keith doesn’t take anything seriously. PB; George Harrison’s first chord in ‘A Hard Day's Night’ is instantly recognizable. Is there a Stones tune which can equal that? There’s riffs, but can you identify a Stones song by a singular chord? JD: No, not by a single chord, but the Stones were a riff band. You listen to the beginning of ‘Rocks Off’ (Jim sings the riff). That’s every bit as instantly identifiable and infectious as ‘A Hard Day's Night.’ PB: Why did you and Greg decide to pit bassist against bassist and drummer against drummer? JD: Oh, I think that’s what music geeks do. You sit in the basement. You listen to these records. You talk about your heroes. You talk about the other guy you think is over rated, you know. It’s just as much fun. I think that’s what super- geek music fans just do. PB: You’ve also written about the Velvet Underground, Cream and Led Zeppelin. Was the process different when tackling this subject matter? JD: Yeah, yeah, I mean, in some ways it was a lot easier. Greg and I just taped ourselves arguing like on the radio show. In some ways it was a lot harder. If the two of us didn’t have forty odd years, each of us, listening to this music, reading three or four dozen books about the Beatles and then reading three or four dozen more about the Stones each, having seen all the movies numerous times, having seen the surviving Beatles and then the Stones in concert as a band, you know, probably a dozen times or 20 times – basically, we’ve had 40 years of research and then 30 or 40 hours just arguing you know, so it was easier and it was harder. PB: What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received in your journalism career, Jim? JD: You know, Cameron Crowe, and a couple of other people I respected told me that if I went to 'Rolling Stone', I quote, “You’ll have pixie dust on your career ever after,” and instead I had the worst hangover of m life It was a horrible place to work, it was a miserable experience. I really should have known better. All the books I’d read about 'Rolling Stone' portrayed it as a Stalin-like dictatorship with Jan Wenner at the head and, you know, you figure, well, maybe it will be different for me, just like that kid who just can’t figure out it’s not a good idea to stick your tongue in the fan, don’t put your finger in the fire, don’t lick the ice cone outside, you know, it’s stupid, it was a bad move. So, that was some bad advice (laughs). PB: How will the current wave of young Beatles and Stones fans react to your book? JD: Oh, I’m sure huge parts of it will piss them off, because a lot of those people, you don’t question Saint Paul McCartney or any of them. It’s like Gospel. On the other hand, I think they miss the fact that it shouldn’t be like the Mt. Rushmore of Rock; Lennon, McCartney, Jagger and Richards carved into the mountainside, right? In order for the music to be fluid, vibrant and vital and alive, you’ve got to take it out of that context of hearing it on Broadway, of hearing it in the Cirque du Soleil, of seeing it in Nike commercials and it should still scare the crap out of kids and also get them really excited, and I think that the only way you can approach that is to say, "These people weren’t Gods, they could make God-awful music and they could make brilliant music. Let’s listen with fresh ears and figure out what we think is what." So the Beatles fan says, “I can’t believe that shit you said about Sgt. Pepper" and they say, "What’s your favorite record?" and you say, ‘Revolver’ or ‘Rubber Soul’ or that kind of thing and really. Are you going to tell me, "Lovely Rita’ is a good song?" (Imitates a fan.) "But, you know, the Beatles were geniuses." Okay, but do you listen to ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and enjoy it? Forget about 'Eleanor Rigby'. Okay, ‘She’s Leaving Home.’ (Imitates fan once more). "Yeah, yeah, yeah, you probably got a point." Can you listen to ‘Revolution No. 9?’ I mean, stop taking it as Gospel truth and start listening and reacting to it again. PB: Have your views on the Beatles and the Stones changed since compiling all of this research? JD: I think we just kind of spit the book out because we’d spent four years researching it and I don’t think my relationship with the Stones or the Beatles is going to change. It just continues and gets deeper at times. There’s those albums you forget. You realize - I haven’t listened to ‘Let It Bleed’ in a long time. Holy Fuck! This is the best album ever made – or you’re passing through somewhere and you’re in a store. They’re playing, ‘Hey Bulldog’ and "Oh, my God! This forgotten, throw-away, nothing song by the Beatles, it’s like the best thing ever. How come that’s not on the radio all the time?" That’s how it should be. It shouldn’t be confined to the history books and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. PB Which of the interviews that you’ve done have been the most memorable? JD: I’ve had some extraordinary experiences, you know, you get to have tea with Charlie Watts and that’s just the coolest thing in the world. One thing that I’ve never heard said about Kurt Cobain is just how smart he was. I think in general it’s like the least cool thing in the world to say that someone is really intellectual in rock and roll. They’re supposed to be savage primitives, right? And he was just incredibly smart and it took him a long time. He had to trust you to show that to you. He just kind of otherwise played the dumb, silent hick from the north woods of Washington. But, when he realized that you just weren’t there to say (imitates uncool journalist), "So, like, you and Courtney are like, John and Yoko, right?" You weren’t going to ask the stupid shit that everybody else wasted his time with. I mean there was a great intellect there and I think the word charisma and the word genius is kind of over used certainly in popular music, but there was a sense when I was sitting with Cobai,n with Brian Eno with, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. Okay, these people, this is something I’ve never seen before. I mean I’ve interviewed a lot of people. You know I did my time as a beat reporter. I’ve interviewed guys who’ve worked for the sewage authority and I’ve interviewed Mick Jagger and you sit there with people like that and you say; these people are special. PB: Are there some common denominators among these artists? What makes a person survive for decades and decades in such a fickle industry? JD: Basically, I don’t think anybody – I think you can count on one hand the number of artists who shouldn’t have hung it up a long time ago - and they’re the exception, rather than the rule. The people, who continue to push themselves, challenge themselves like a Neil Young or a Dylan. He happens to be in a very up part of his career right now. Why? He’s still making good records except for that God-awful Christmas record last year. But the Dylan, Neil Young, a Richard Thompson…But, I don’t see the shame. We don’t expect Michael Jordan to still be playing for the Bulls today. I don’t know why we expect the rock stars at age 70, because you know we’re talking about the baby boomer era heroes. They’re closing in on 70. I don’t want to hear the Stones play ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ again at 70 because their heart’s not in it. I mean, now, if Jagger and Richards want to play a two week stand at the Chicago Theater and play the blues music that they fell in love with when they were 17, fine. If they want to play two weeks at the Chicago Theater and play ‘Exile on Main Street’, great. But, who are you kidding, playing ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ and ‘Start Me Up’ at $350 a ticket? And the same can be said for McCartney. McCartney I admire more in that way, for stretching. He makes records with the techno-DJ Youth as the Fireman. He made records with the Super Furry Animals. There’s part of him that still enjoys avant garde experimentation and I know, having interviewed him, it’s a point of pride and also he kind of gets cheesed off that people don’t talk more about that stuff. On the other hand, he can never be forgiven for writing ‘Ebony and Ivory’ or ‘Silly Love Songs.’ You mean, really? The guy who helped make ‘Revolver’ wrote ‘Silly Love Songs?’ PB: He was in love. JD: Yeah, but ‘Martha My Dear’ – good love song, even though it’s about his dog. But, ‘Silly Love Songs’ – bad, love song. You know, anyway you cut it. PB: What will you pass on to your Journalism students after all these years of experience? JD: You know, I’ve got 15 weeks of reviewing the art classes of four hour sessions, so it’s hard to boil it down. Real simply; you want to write. It’s easier than ever; write, write, write, write, write and then write some more. Start a blog. I had to go in to Kinkos when my friends were working and run off 100 copies of my 81/2 X 11 xeroxed fanzine and now you just start a blog. You’re going to suck for a long time but the more you write, you’re going to get better. If this is your calling, you just keep at it, and the other thing is there’s no such thing as a good writer who is not a voracious reader. You’ve got to read, read, read, read, read. You read the great rock critics, you read the shitty ones. You read the old stuff, you read the brand new stuff and you see what tools work for other writers and not to say you copy them, but you see how this is done It’s astonishing the number of people who tell me they want to be a writer, but they don’t read, you know, and they’re not writing (Laughs). Exactly what are you waiting for? Do you want to get paid first? Well, I wrote about music for ten years before I was paid a dime. You don’t need a license, you know. PB: Jim, your house is burning down. You’ve only got a minute to grab a few things before you run out of the door. What are you going to grab? JD: You see that changes everyday. That’s the desert island question. I mean, first I’d grab my wife. After that, I probably would take; I have a signed copy of the little cartoon booklet that Charlie Watts did about the life of Charlie Parker as a little bird when he was a graphic artist before the Stones started, and you know, signed by Charlie. I might take that. I got a copy of Brian Eno’s ‘Another Green World’ that he signed, a copy of Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Music Machine’ vinyl that he signed. You know, I might consider taking those. It depends on how fast the place was burning. PB: Thanks so much, Jim.
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