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Memoirs of a Music Man
I've been chasing these Moments since I was 12 years old, and, during my four years as rock critic at The Post, I hunted them the way Ahab chased the white whale. I looked everywhere -- in stadiums, arenas, clubs, basements, studios, garages, even parking lots. It didn't happen often, but on a few unforgettable occasions, I stumbled into a Moment. Finding one just made me crave another.
For me, the pop critic job was a cheap way to feed an old habit. I'd been buying records and "wooooo"-ing at concerts ever since I laid eyes on Elvis Costello in 1977, when he sang on "Saturday Night Live." Pigeon-toed and decked out in a cheap suit and twerpy glasses, he started a song called "Less Than Zero," then, after a moment or two, very dramatically halted the band, shouted some weird apology to the crowd and then launched into "Radio, Radio."
I was a goner. I loved the sound, the song, the drama, the sense that this excitable nerd had taken control of the show and seemed ready to run it into a ditch. He looked like the future of music, a guy who could crash a very dull party and turn it into something that would scare your parents. I wanted to meet him, even though I had the sense that he wouldn't like me, that he wouldn't like anyone, himself included. When I bought his debut album, "My Aim Is True," it wouldn't leave me alone. For a while, my friend J.P. and I were so reverently attached to Costello that we instituted a rule: No leaving the room when Elvis Costello is playing. That would be disrespectful.
After Elvis, there were Graham Parker and Joe Jackson, then Devo, then the Ramones, then Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen and then a ton of New Wave bands (the Rings, the A's, the Sinceros) that no one ever heard from again. I went to a local chain in Providence, near where I grew up, called Strawberries and bought albums because the covers looked cool or because the name sounded good (how about 999 or Pearl Harbor and the Explosions?).
Oddly, my first concert was jazz crossover Chuck Mangione when I was 13, and, God help me, I loved it. That man could make a fluegelhorn sing! After that, Blood Sweat & Tears, then a blur of arena rock bands from the '70s, all of them peddling irony-free bombast through a pungent cloud of pot smoke, like Blue Oyster Cult, Aerosmith and the J. Geils Band. After I turned 18 and could get into clubs, I bluffed my way backstage whenever possible. I still have an index card signed by every member of the punk band X. I caught a guitar pick tossed into the crowd by Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith's guitarist, and had it framed. Once I interrupted Joe Jackson when I spotted him conversing in a bar. "I think you're being rude," he told me. He had a point.
To me these people weren't people. If you grow up, as I did, with the hunch that we live in a godless universe and you believed, as I did, that Bruce Springsteen was the nation's only home-grown prophet, then a live concert was about the only place you were going to have a religious experience. It's a whole lot like a prayer service, actually, since everyone knows the words and you leave feeling uplifted. I had far more epiphanies in the Providence Civic Center than I ever did at Temple Emmanuel.
I'm sure a lot of people at those shows felt the same way, but very few of them became music journalists. So why did I? Sometime in my mid-twenties I realized that writing was the only thing I wanted to do, and after I was nearly fired from a political consulting firm when I moved to Washington in the late '80s, journalism seemed my only viable option. I freelanced for anyone who'd publish me. A few years, and many stories later, The Post hired me, in 1993, as a reporter in the Business section. I covered serious matters, like HMOs and law firms. But all the while I wrote the occasional pop music story, and, when the rock job opened up, I had enough clips to apply with a straight face.
Elvis Costello once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and I quickly saw his point. Explaining what makes music great is kind of futile, since the tools at hand never seem equal to the material. I'm not sure if music criticism is something I ever excelled at, but I'm certain of this: When I started, I stank. My first review, about a Snoop Dogg album, somehow opened with a riff about Elvis Presley, which my editor wisely cut. When I first put on headphones in the newsroom, at my desk, I felt like I was getting away with something, or loafing, like I was about to get busted. All around me, colleagues were reporting real stories -- corruption or calamities or political scandal -- and I was listening to "Brake Fluid (Biiittch Pump Yo' Brakes)."
That feeling soon passed. Even in hindsight, I loved just about every minute of the gig. Just about. Some stories went horribly awry, if you want to know the truth. Like the time I tried to coax some memories out of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a legendary guitarist and fiddle player in the world of Southern roots music who's been making albums and touring for decades. This was backstage at the Birchmere, and I'd brought along 10 songs by other artists that Brown said had influenced him, the titles of which he'd given me a week before our meeting. Gatemouth puffed on his pipe while I played the songs on my portable boombox. The music was supposed to provoke some anecdotes and kick-start him into an explanation of the origins of his style. It didn't work. A lifelong abstainer, he could focus on just one thing -- that most of his musical heroes were drunks.
Piano player Cecil Grant? "He drank a lot," Brown said.
Texas swing man Bob Wills? "Liquor carried him out."
Hank Williams? "Whiskey and drugs got him."