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Memoirs of a Music Man
Beyond the tastes of a teenager, most rock critics have a hard-core addiction to the Live Concert Moment. Like Jane Scott, who retired a few years ago as the pop critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer at age 82. Yes, 82. She was already in her forties when the Beatles came to town, and when she figured out that nobody at the paper had signed up to cover the event, she volunteered.
For parts of the next five decades, she went to hundreds of shows, always with her ticket pinned to her chest, so she wouldn't lose it, usually armed with a peanut butter sandwich in case she got hungry. She's met everyone -- Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, to name just a few. When I asked her what kept her going, she brought up the Doobie Brothers, of all bands. At some point in the '70s, they came to town and toward the end of their set played that FM staple "Black Water." There's an a cappella moment in that song, and when it came, she explained, everyone in the building was locked arm in arm, swaying and singing.
"Until you've experienced that," she told me once, shaking her head, "you don't know anything."
For Scott, understanding the power of amplified pop was nothing short of the beginning of enlightenment.
I hate any talk about the good old days of rock criticism, but Scott surely lived through some kind of golden age of the genre. It's not merely that concerts are more programmed, the stars are programmed, too. You know what I'm talking about if you've ever seen "Almost Famous," the film about a young rock critic working in the mid-'70s. I hated that movie. Or maybe I just resented it because the world of music journalism in that film seems like more fun than the one I know. The writer in "Almost Famous," a character based on the film's writer and director, Cameron Crowe, himself a former critic, has amazing access to the bands he covers. He flies with them, hangs out with them. When the lead singer of one band takes off on a bender, the writer goes right along with him.
I'm sure the intimacy is exaggerated, but I don't doubt that it was easier to have a real conversation with a pop star when the industry was far younger. It was less of a business plan back then, less uptight. There were label flacks hovering then, too, and men in satin baseball jackets owned everyone, then as now. But those people were tolerated by the band, whereas now the bands often allow them to call the shots. The act is in on the act. I interviewed a few dozen musicians in my 50-plus months of pop writing, and I think I had three, maybe four, true conversations. I'm talking about times when a performer wasn't on message, sounding like a senator with a stump speech.
One exception was an interview with Nick Lowe, a huge hero of mine. He's best known for "Cruel to Be Kind," a semi-hit in the '80s, and for producing the early classics of Elvis Costello. His solo albums never caught on huge in the United States, but they are amazing -- smart and catchy pop with a sly naughty streak. He had come to town in 2001 to support a superb album called "The Convincer," and, while we talked over lunch in Chinatown, he said that if he hadn't become a musician he would have liked to become a journalist.
"Have you ever seen a newsroom?" I asked him.
He had not. So after the fortune cookies we walked to The Post. The only problem was that to get into the building you have to show some sort of identification to a guard in the lobby. Lowe had nothing on him, not even a wallet. For a moment I thought I would miss my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to impress my colleagues by walking around saying, "I'd like you to meet Nick Lowe." Then I remembered that I had a copy of his CD in my bag -- and I remembered that the cover of "The Convincer" is a close-up of Lowe's face. I showed it to the guard.
"Wow," he said, looking at Lowe, then the CD, then Lowe. "Go on up."
Part of the fun of music journalism is that even when you're not having your own Moment, odds are good that someone near you is. If the average age in the crowd is under 15, it's a sure thing. When I started, in early 2000, the teen pop craze of Britney and 'N Sync was just getting started, too, and I had a sense the whole phenomenon would provide a rich vein. Those acts are easy to ridicule, but even better, they brought out a ferocious, almost tribal reaction in their fans that you just don't see at, say, a Moby concert. The first time I laid eyes on 'N Sync, at a stadium show at RFK, I was jolted by the unearthly shrieks of 30,000 tweeners. In my review, I professed amazement at the scene but was pretty dismissive of the music.
This angered a few fans, among them a 13-year-old named Roxanne Shorrock, who denounced me in rather tart terms in a series of letters. The first, a masterstroke of invective, accused me of forgetting the meaning of the word "fun" and alleged that 'N Sync, in her memorable phrasing, "had just nailed [my] ass." I wasn't sure what this meant, exactly, but it sounded painful and the sort of thing I might have said to a rock critic who talked smack about Elvis Costello, had I been literate enough to read the newspaper at 13.