An interview with
Mark Jenkins (2005)
I clearly remember
the day when I first became aware of Mark Jenkins and of What Goes On, his
online biweekly column that appears in the Washington City Paper: on that
day I was busy doing a Web search about Sofia Coppola's then-new movie, Lost
In Translation. Titled Knowing The Score, Jenkins's (extremely well-written)
piece offered a perceptive analysis of the movie, while arguing that it had
been the critics' undervaluation of the role played by music in this film
- not to mention their lack of knowledge about the music itself - that had
proved to be the stumbling block in their interpretation of it. Mind you,
it's not that I agreed with each and every point made by the author. But the
piece offered a distinctive perspective.
Imagine my surprise
when I discovered that Knowing The Score was not a chapter in a column about
film, but about music. And so it was that I started my exploration of the
What Goes On archives. Of course, I also kept myself up-to-date by visiting
the paper's website at regular intervals.
All the installments
in What Goes On offer clear, thoughtful prose. A distinctive point of view
that's never afraid of being unpopular but that never considers being unpopular
as its main goal. From Television to the Velvets, from Payola to Starbucks,
from Lollapalooza to The Hives, Jenkins's
column definitely covers a lot of ground.
And so, as soon
as I considered myself to be reasonably familiar with his column, I thought
about asking Mark Jenkins a few questions. He agreed, and our recent e-mail
conversation can be read below.
a first question, I'd like to ask you about your background. The only thing
I know about you is what you wrote in one of your columns (07 21 00, Who Wants
Yesterday's Blurtings?): "Yes, I was a Bangsian, which means a Meltzerian,
too". (...) "Bangs published a few of my pieces in Creem, and I
published outtakes by both Bangs and Meltzer in a fanzine I ran". Would
you mind elaborating?
started reading Creem in the early '70s, when I was in high school. I submitted
reviews to Creem and to Fusion (a little-remembered rock monthly based in
Boston) and had a few published in both publications.
the time, there was little distance between "professional" rock
magazines and amateur "fanzines." I published a fanzine called Hype,
and corresponded with lots of fanzine and professional writers. (This was
done mostly by letter in those days, although Bangs used to telephone me occasionally.)
Both Bangs and Meltzer wrote prolifically then, and sometimes sent me their
outtakes for publication in Hype. Among the pieces I ran were Meltzer's account
of traveling with producer/performer/scam artist Kim Fowley on a promotional
tour, and Bangs's proposal to incarcerate rock stars in concentration camps.
(This was long before computerized information retrieval went mainstream,
but I probably have copies on paper someplace.)
Hype became bigger and more ambitious, it also began appearing less frequently.
The last issue was published around 1975. Since then, I've written for a lot
of publications on a lot of subjects.
know next to nothing about the newspaper on which you write, the Washington
City Paper. Is it in any way comparable to the Village Voice?
it's much like the Village Voice. It's a weekly "alternative" tabloid,
of the sort that is published in most major American cities as well as many
hip smaller cities and towns, notably ones with universities. These publications
became much more formulaic in the '80s and '90s, and began to be acquired
by two chains, New Times and Village Voice Media. (The latter, of course,
owns the Voice.) Currently, there are rumors that the two chains will merge.
Washington City Paper is owned by the Chicago Reader, one of the biggest alternative
weeklies, which is not part of the two largest chains.
Voice started in the '50s, and is the longest-running such publication. It
was followed in the '60s by so-called "underground" newspapers,
which were linked to the anti-Vietnam-war movement, drug culture, sexual liberation,
and of course, psychedelic rock. (In DC, there were the Washington Free Press
and Quicksilver Times.) In the early '70s, these publications became more
professional and less ideological, and were renamed "alternative."
After several DC alternative weeklies came and went, Washington City Paper
was founded in 1981, and eventually became established and profitable.
I'm not mistaken, What Goes On, your biweekly column, started in 1996. Is
it online only? Would you mind talking about it? Do you contribute other stuff
to the Washington City Paper?
started as an online column, when City Paper decided to put original writing
on its website. That was, as you note, in 1996. For a period of about a year
in the early '00s, it also ran in the paper, but then returned to being online
write film reviews for City Paper weekly. I also write less frequently for
the paper about music, art, books, and other subjects. I used to write a lot
about urban development and design issues, but don't do much of that any more
(although I wish I did).
web column is a different kind of writing than the print reviews, and I frequently
feel that I'm not really ready to write the latest column - that I don't have
enough information, or I haven't thought enough about the topic. That's the
principal reason that the "biweekly" schedule often slips.
also keep meaning to add short reviews of CDs, and almost never get around
to it. I did it faithfully for awhile, and found it incredibly time-consuming.
you currently contribute to other magazines/newspapers?
write regularly for the Washington Post, DC's dominant daily, mostly but not
exclusively about music, and review music intermittently for Blender (a national
music monthly) and Time Out New York (a New York weekly). I review local CDs
for WAMU-FM, a "public" radio station in DC. A lot of this stuff
is available on the respective webpages: www.washingtoncitypaper.com; www.washingtonpost.com;
and www.wamu.org. Alas, City Paper and the Post charge for access to their
archives. (That's anything that's more than two weeks old for the Post; a
month for City Paper.)
we mentioned both Bangs and Meltzer: What was your impression of Almost Famous?
hope you don't mind if I recycle my City Paper review here. I could paraphrase
or revise it, but I think the original review presents my opinion best:
Crowe's Almost Famous should bewilder only two groups: People who don't like
rock music. And people who do.
sunniest movie ever made about drug abuse, sexual degradation, and rock'n'roll
suicide, Almost Famous is the lightly fictionalized, mostly comic tale of
Crowe's first road trip as a 15-year-old Rolling Stone correspondent. It's
set in 1973, a year the film depicts as both a personal watershed and a musical
delight. Yet the writer-director is sufficiently unsure of his cultural history
to introduce the anti-Crowe, gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs, as the story's
Bangs and Crowe grew up in the San Diego area, and did indeed know each other.
But Bangs (impersonated energetically if unconvincingly by Philip Seymour
Hoffman) went East, first to Detroit and the anti-corporate-rock Creem and
then to New York and the radical-chic Village Voice. While Bangs became a
passionate scold, Crowe stayed in California and developed a career as a rock
courtier. In the movie, Bangs appears periodically to warn young William Miller
(Patrick Fugit) that ambitious rock stars "are not your friends.'' Of
course, Crowe's rock-journalism career was dependent on the pretense that
their first meeting, Bangs informs Miller that the kid has started writing
about rock just in time for its "death rattle.'' Yet Crowe has said that
one of the motivations for the movie was to rebut detractors of early-'70s
pop music. The movie has almost as many song cues as High Fidelity, from The
Chipmunk Song and Brenton Wood's Oogum Boogum to Black Sabbath's Paranoid
and the Brian-less Beach Boys's Feel Flows. A few of these tunes are used
ironically, but more should be. Perhaps the film's most preposterous moment
comes on the tour bus, when William joins amiable roadies, fresh-faced groupies,
and the members of the heavy-rock quartet Stillwater in singing along to Elton
John's mawkish Tiny Dancer. Crowe must know better, but he insists on portraying
early-'70s pop as one big happy family, as if FM rock hadn't already permanently
ruptured the consensus.
is a composite of the bands that Crowe shadowed in his early days at Rolling
Stone, including the Eagles, the Allman Brothers, and Led Zeppelin. The band
is essentially reduced to charismatic lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy
Crudup), with quarrelsome lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) provided for comic
relief. Crowe has said the film is about fame and fandom, but you couldn't
tell that from watching Stillwater or Miller. The band is depicted as indeed
"almost famous,'' worthy of only slightly more respect than Spinal Tap,
and if Miller's a fan he never lets on. He's glad to be part of the traveling
circus, but doesn't really seem to care who's in the spotlight.
fact, William worships not Stillwater but Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the supernaturally
benevolent groupie who loves Russell when the guitarist's wife isn't around.
This premise puts the director on familiar ground. Like Say Anything, Singles,
and Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous features the story of an earnest young man
who's madly smitten with a woman of whom he is somehow unworthy. (In real
life, the average-looking Crowe is married to hard-rock beauty Nancy Wilson,
guitarist for Heart.) William is so enchanted that a scene in which he watches
as the suicidal Penny has her stomach pumped is presented as a moment of romantic
both funny and sweet, which are the strongest emotions this genial film can
muster. Almost Famous seems almost uninterested in rock'n'roll, except as
a backdrop the director can render with some accuracy, but sycophantic journalism
is another matter: Crowe offers not only Bangs but his own mother as enemies
of corporate-rock hype; leftist Puritan Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand,
shrill even by the standards of her previous work) battles furiously to shield
her son from the great rock'n'roll swindle. Despite these homages, however,
Crowe's real muse is Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who appears in a
brief cameo, offering a silent benediction for the movie's sanitized version
of rock's pre-punk doldrums.
like to ask you some general questions, using quotes from your columns as
starting points. Talking about the Beatles Anthology sets and the Velvet Underground
box set, you wrote: "Plenty on these discs is inessential, but not their
fundamental message: that listening to pop music and thinking about it are
complementary activities". (02 21 97, Know Too Much About History) Do
you find nowadays this to be a common attitude on the part of the listeners?
truthful answer is that I don't know. My non-critic friends who are very involved
with popular music do think a lot about the subject, but they're probably
not typical. I suspect that many music fans only contemplate aspects of music
that I would find superficial. Pop music is show-biz to a greater extent than
it has been since the 1950s, and the critical sensibility that developed with
1960s rock has certainly diminished. But it's also true that most pop-music
consumers never cared very much about theory and history, and the percentage
of people who are interested in such things probably hasn't changed. What
has happened - at least in the United States - is that the marketing machinery
has become much more efficient, even ruthless. Thus rock criticism has been
effectively marginalized. In the late '60s and '70s, even troublemakers like
Bangs and Meltzer were accepted as part of the process. Now mainstream U.S.
magazines (both music and general-interest) avoid that sort of writing, and
rock criticism that's considered too irreverent or too intellectual is banished
to fanzines or websites. There are more critical voices than ever, but they're
much less likely to reach the mainstream.
think quite a few people - not to mention music writers - would disagree with
what you wrote here: "Like novelists in the wake of the wildly inventive
early 20th century, contemporary rockers proceed not so much as if nothing
ever happened but as if nothing ever will again. Sometimes it works. But it's
not exactly the makings of a stirring saga". (11 28 00, What's the Story,
Modern Rock?) Would you mind elaborating?
the 20th century, many art forms reached a crisis point: Painting became pure
abstraction and then vanished altogether into conceptual art; conservatory
music was dictated by arcane theories that uninitiated listeners simply couldn't
comprehend; novels became dense and unreadable - codes to be cracked rather
than stories to be enjoyed. In its less rigorous way, rock did the same thing:
It grew from simple songs, rooted in blues, country, and pop, into experimental
forms that drew on classical, jazz, avant garde, and sheer noise. This sort
of radical stuff still exists, but it failed to change what most people listened
to - just as James Joyce didn't kill the romance novel, or Marcel Duchamp
destroy the landscape painting. So today "modern rock" bands make
music that sounds pretty much like what their predecessors did in the '60s
and '70s. Musicians who play "emo," punk-funk, nu-metal, or even
electro-lounge-worldbeat-trip-hop may use technology somewhat differently,
but they're not redefining pop music, or stretching its boundaries. The mainstream
goal now is to write catchy songs, not to expand, escape, or shatter the form.
The idea that rock can become something unprecedented is essentially forgotten.
I've just heard too much music. It's possible that fans who don't remember
the '60s and '70s perceive a sense of "progress'' in today's popular
music that I just don't hear.
I think, is an idea with which it's impossible to disagree: "These days,
the idea of a prestige artist is almost quaint. (...) Releasing albums that
could (but don't) engage a mainstream audience seems at best an obsolete form
of philanthropy". But what do you mean exactly when you say: "Most
contemporary critics are either trying to devise rationales for liking best-selling
teen-pap and thug-hop or seeking out the most obscure varieties of nonselling
"pop.""? (01 16 01, Last of the Prestige Rock Stars)
think critical rock writing, at least in the U.S. and the U.K., has split
between the obscurantists and the populist-sociologists. The most fervent
desire of the former, who mostly inhabit fanzines and websites, is to be ahead
of the curve, even if that means embracing music whose only appeal is its
lack of appeal. The other camp, whose practitioners range from quite cynical
to utterly sincere, insist on liking whatever sells in large quantities, because
they believe on some level that popular taste is infallible. (Even if the
music's no good, the fact that people like it gives it value.)
interesting thing about writing about popular music (and pop-art forms, especially
cinema) is that you can switch between - or blend - the artistic and the sociological.
You can write only about a song's formal qualities, or entirely about its
social significance, or do both. I don't automatically reject either approach.
I try to negotiate the arcane as well as the overexposed, although there's
so much music out there now that it's impossible to do justice to either one.
I do believe that music that sells in large quantities can be insignificant.
For one thing, popular taste is easily manipulated. (In the U.S., there's
just been another round of payola cases.) Also, pop music that didn't sell
in its time can remain influential - the obvious example is the Velvet Underground
- while chart-topping stuff can fade. In the long term, I suspect that Britney
Spears (for example) won't matter. But then I never understood why all those
academics were interested in Madonna.
about a recording by Angus MacLise - The Velvet Underground's original drummer
- you wrote: "It's safe to say that a long-lost recording by, say, Franz
Ferdinand's original drummer will not have even that impact, circa 2040".
(I don't think too many would dispute this.) Then you write: "But it's
also true that '60s and '70s rock - especially '60s and '70s underground
rock - has qualities that its antecedents lack: the urgency of inventing something
from scratch, the drama of battling a hostile society, the power of going
some place no band had gone before". (10 01 04, A Night to Reconsider)
Well, what happened later? And what's your opinion about Franz Ferdinand?
answer to #7 sort of covers this. I think that '60s and '70s rock enjoyed
a unique context. Musicians were defining the style for the first time, expanding
dramatically on its sources, and adding a wide range of outside influences.
(One example: Before the Beatles and the Byrds, few Americans or Britons had
ever heard Indian music.) Also, they were transforming the recording studio
from a documentary device into a sort of musical instrument. And this was
the era in which the post-war baby-boom generation came of age, significantly
shaped by student unrest, sexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs, and (especially
in the U.S.) the civil-rights and anti-war movements. This combination of
musical and social change gave the music an urgency that contemporary rockers
are hard-pressed to achieve.
recently interviewed Gang of Four's Andy Gill, and we discussed how many current
bands are influenced by Gof4's style, but none by its politics. Not every
band has to sing "fuck Bush," but the punk-funk and new-wave revivalists
lack the sense of commitment of the music they imitate.
I think Franz Ferdinand is skilled, clever, and kind of dull. I'd rather the
band borrowed fewer riffs and more attitude from its predecessors.
you think that, in an age when one can download MP3s of practically any band,
reading some critic's opinions can still be considered a worthy occupation?
And: In a visual age where poor literacy is said to be increasingly widespread,
can musical analysis in print still be regarded as relevant?
course I think that rock criticism is still worthy and relevant. But criticism
fulfills two functions at once, even if the two are sometimes at cross purposes:
It publicizes and describes new works - albums, films, or whatever - and it
analyzes them. I'm sure that the majority of readers are (and always have
been) more interested in the description than the analysis. For decades, Britain
had more (and more influential) music publications than the U.S. because it
had such limited radio. People needed to read about music that they had no
opportunity to hear (unless they bought it). As the U.K. gained more radio
channels, followed by Internet music sites, the music weeklies lost clout.
Most of them, in fact, went out of business.
issue of "poor literacy" - or "aliteracy," the growing
tendency of the literate to not use their skills - is a big one to address
here. But as a film and art critic, I don't think that images can replace
words. The ability to construct verbal/literary arguments is essential.
you just want to know what a song sounds like, however, sound clips will always
be more effective than written descriptions. Perhaps the two can work together,
as they're supposed to at webzines such as Slate (www.slate.com), for which
I've written occasionally. So far, however, that synergy hasn't developed
very far. In fact, it probably works better on the radio. I do approximately
five-minute reviews that usually include five 20-to-30-second clips. That
format isn't perfect, but at least I'm certain that listeners will know what
the music sounds like.
in your opinion, is doing relevant work today when it comes to music criticism?
are a lot of smart, informed pop-music critics out there, but most of them
don't get to show what they can do - at least in the publications I read.
Editors and publishers keep pushing to keep critical pieces short, punchy,
and unambiguous - which is suitable only for outright raves or utter pans
(and they rarely run the latter).
lot of rock critics I used to read with pleasure seem to no longer write,
and a few who still do seem to have lost their minds. Some names of current
writers whose work I usually find interesting: Douglas Wolk, David Fricke,
Sasha Frere Jones, RJ Smith, Dennis Lim, Richard Gehr - but it's really hard
to tell what they can do, since most of them are usually trapped in formats
that allow them 50 to perhaps 200 words. (Why are there no women on that list?
It has something to do with the fact that are so few women writing pop-music
criticism these days, at least in the U.S. publications that I see.) I used
to read the British music press, but these days I rarely do, so I don't know
who's writing there.
list of writers is not definitive, and there are probably some great pop critics
out there whose work I don't know. But there certainly aren't any I follow
the way I used to follow Meltzer and Bangs.
Beppe Colli 2005
| Sept. 11, 2005
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