For Dylan fans only — the real story behind Victor Maymudes book

The NYT today has a review of a new book on Dylan. It’s based on the recorded reminiscences of Victor Maymudes. He was one of Dylan’s earliest friends in the Village and later a key part of his entourage during the years of chaos that followed.

The two had lost touch, but when Maymudes ended up down and out Dylan eventually put him back on the payroll, and he eventually rose to be essentially his road manager on the Never Ending Tour—and later had a lot to do with Dylan’s real estate holdings. (The star is said to have a hobby in flipping houses.)

Maymudes died in 2001; the book, Another Side of Bob Dylan, was put together by his son Jacob, based on 24 hours of cassette recordings his father had made.

The Times story elides some of the more, ah, colorful aspects of Maymudes life. The rockiness of the relationship is described like this:

[Dylan] [b]rought him back even after an episode involving a teenage girl that led to Victor’s being fired as tour manager in 1995. Another star might have banished him. Instead, Mr. Dylan had Victor scout for and look after his real estate holdings. A quarrel over one property caused the final, acrimonious break in 1997.

There’s more to the story. Maymudes was not charged in the 1995 incident but he was detained by police. According to another new biography, Dylan, by former LA Times reporter Dennis McDougal, that property quarrel was not what estranged the two. McDougal reports that Maymudes exposed himself to a 17-year-old  cafe waitress, and that’s what led to his ultimate banishment.

I’m not sure whether to trust McDougal’s book. It’s irritatingly unsourced. On the other hand, it’s not just a clip job, and he’s a legitimate reporter who seems to have some good Southern California sources with knowledge of Dylan’s activities.

The Times story also doesn’t ask about what happened to the ill-tempered tell-all Maymudes promised almost 20 years ago. “I’m going to peel him like an onion,” he told author Howard Sounes in the late 1990s — and called Dylan an “asshole.” Maymudes also detailed his years of shuffling women around for the star —and bragged he himself had slept with 300 women just in the Hotel Chelsea!

It can’t have been easy working for Dylan. Early on, Maymudes was a quiet presence in Dylan’s chaotic world, always there to play a silent game of chess or Go with him.  Later, there’s circumstantial evidence Maymudes was on a shorter leash. At the beginning of the Never Ending Tour, Dylan was on the road with the Alarm, a very poor man’s U2 who had a few months of notice in the late 1980s. Here’s a story the lead singer recounts:

“There was this guy Victor Malmudes [sic] who was just Bob’s mate. We never were quite sure what he did. One day Bob didn’t come down for his usual swim. Victor said, ‘He’s got a bit of a cold.’ The next day we were by the pool and Bob comes down for a swim and Nigel Twist [Alarm drummer] said, ‘How are you feeling today, Bob?’ He goes, ‘What do you mean?’ Twist said, ‘Victor said you had a cold.’ Bob said, ‘Did he?’ and that was it. He carried on swimming. That evening Victor was sent home off the tour for giving away personal information. He was banished for three days, and then he came back.”

 

“Here be dragons”: A few thoughts on Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”

boyhood“Here be dragons”: Those words appear in a section of uncharted territory on a 16th-century globe. It’s a reminder that dangers lurk in places we haven’t been yet. That’s what life, in the end, is all about, and that’s what Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, is all about. It’s the most technically interesting movie of the year–the Gravity of 2014–but not because of technology in the usual sense. Linklater lays out the events over 12 years in the life of a young boy; the trick is that the filmmaker, the crew, and the cast filmed the thing over an actual 12-year period, so you see the main character–and his supporting players–age genuinely over the course of the film. About a third of the way through you start to get the feeling that the result is something you’ve simply never seen before.

There are things about the movie that thrill you, but you also from time to time question the conceit. Wait a minute, you think. In a certain way, it’s not that big of a deal; we watch documentaries, after all, in which we see real people change over time, right? I think the difference with Boyhood is that in most cases anyone who’s the subject of a documentary would be someone we’d be familiar with as an adult, so the older pictures are quaint and harmless. Part of the thrill Boyhood gives you stems from the fact that, since the film is in essence about life, about time, the aging feels different. Each new segment of the film is a new step into an unknown world, and the effect as you watch is poignant, almost overwhelming.

I’m also always suspicious about work where we’re supposed to marvel at how the thing was constructed, as opposed to what was constructed. If the PR folks are talking about process, it means they don’t have the substance to talk about. But again, once you think about it, you realize why this film is different. The process and the film’s meaning are in the end one. The process embodies the mystery at the heart of the picture and, again, life. Every new step forward into new territory is a victory in a journey that, for all of us in one way or another, is perilous. We’re in the same position parents and relatives are in as they watch the kids evolve over time. We know things the kids don’t; we ache to comfort when the unexplainable happens—when, in other words, the things that make life happen happen. And we see growth in all its forms.

The star of the film, playing the kid Mason, is named Ellar Coltrane; the risks Linklater took on the project–casting a 6-year-old on a 12-year-project–are obvious. Watching the kid both grow up and, essentially, learn how to act, adds another level of depth to the film. As we leave him, the round-faced Mason with the unblinking eyes whom we have seen emotionally battered in various ways has elongated, smoothed and–after that unattractive early-teen phase we all went through–turned into something that, on the surface at least, seems to be a resourceful and even somewhat confident young man. He knows things he didn’t know before, and sees his surroundings–and particularly his parents–in a new perspective.

One of the realities of Boyhood, however, is that, on top of this conceit, Linklater achieves his effects without actually doing much. There is no great narrative arc. It’s really just a series of vignettes about how Mason relates to his family and others, and how these experiences accrete to make us who we are. I may be forgetting something, but I don’t know if there’s more than an incidental scene in the entire film where Coltrane’s alone.

boyhood-richard-linklater-21343407

What Boyhood is really about is the fragility of every child’s life, and I think all will feel the slight air of dread that permeates the film. The effect isn’t a cheap one; rather, it’s a deeply humanistic point about the vulnerability of kids. That’s why parents tell kids the things they do: Don’t do risky things with your stupid friends; don’t text while driving. These are all are dangerous things to do, and they are all things kids do anyway. If you’re like me, you’ll spent a good part of the film slightly anxious. Linklater seems to know that there are subtler dangers as well. One character, a psychology professor, has the words “attachment disorder” on the blackboard. This theory says that a lot of emotional problems later in life comes from the level of secure attachment a child is allowed to experience with his or her parents. There’s a plain irony at work when a detached father, say, tries to warn the kid how to take care of himself. Most of the film, in fact, is quite subtle; entire new lives and other stories are hinted at by the smallest of things – a glimpse of a uniform, a passing remark to a friend.

Boyhood isn’t an easy movie. It’s long, and its disconnected episodes, given the film’s conception, by definition could go on for a lifetime. But by halfway through little Mason had caught me. He wasn’t a boy but Everyboy–at the mercy of a merciless adventure. No one knows where he will go next, but there will be dragons.

Here’s what’s wrong with the big Ticketmaster settlement

The WSJ says that Ticketmaster is in the process of settling a long-running class-action suit attacking the company for its myriad “service” charges. The basic thrust of the case was that the company was just tacking on new charges that had no relation to the ostensible names—they were profit centers whose price bore no relation to the service supposedly rendered.

You can read the court papers here.

The Journal says the settlement could cost the company up to $400 million, but that its actual outlay would be much lower. The proposed settlement provides for $2.25 and $5 discounts on future ticket buys to members of the class; the paper says participation rates in cases like this are typically so low that the total the company pays out might be less than ten percent of the maximum.

The settlement as it is described is for many reasons something less than a silver bullet for music fans.

Part of it lets the company simply say on its web site that the various fees generate profits for the company. Ironically, this provision is bad for both sides. Most consumers won’t see the notice, and will remain misled. Those who do see it will have confirmed the suspicions they already had about how the company operates. This will undermine the company’s reputation further, though I suppose the argument can be made it can’t get any worse.

But this is all ancillary to the main issue, which is that the fees shouldn’t be allowed at all. But wait — don’t fans have a choice, like any other consumer?

They don’t. Music fans have no where else to go. As Hitsville has written before, the peculiar economics of the concert industry make it easy for shenanigans like this.  If you want to see U2 on a tour, you have to go through whatever ticket-purchasing system is available for the particular show in your town. You can’t choose to see U2 in a different venue, or buy your ticket through a different reseller.

If, for example, your local grocer let you wait in the checkout line, but then before handing over your food demanded a “cashier’s fee,” or a “convenience fee,” it wouldn’t stay in business long, because people would go somewhere else.

Also in a normal industry, other interested parties, like the venues or the artists that are putting on the actual shows, would feel heat from consumers. Ticketmaster gets around that by sharing the wealth.

For example, Ticketmaster has built up a network of exclusive facilities across the country. It keeps the arrangements exclusive by kicking back part of the ticket fees to the venues. In effect, music fans are being forced to pay more for their tickets to help prop up an extortionary system.

 

Recent articles by Hitsville

For the New York Times:

“Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Nobel’s Door” (Why Bob Dylan Should Be Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature):

29DYLAN-articleLargeIf the academy doesn’t recognize Bob Dylan — a bard who embodied the most significant cultural upheaval of the second half of the last century — it will squander its best chance to honor a pop poet. What other songwriter would remotely qualify? Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen? Perhaps. Randy Newman? Chuck D? (In truth, the only other pop artist with work as timeless as Mr. Dylan’s is Chuck Berry — but that’s an argument for another day.) With his superstar peers either silent or content to collect the big bucks playing ingratiating stadium shows, this artist, iconoclastic and still vital, demands that we take the product of his muse on his own terms, and refuses to go so gently.

“Last Thoughts on Breaking Bad

Breaking-Bad-Season-51

A famous Agatha Christie book ends with thick sheaf of blank pages. She wanted to the end of the book not to be anticipated by her readers. The ending of “The Sopranos,” famously, came on a note of total ambiguity. Among other things, the scene was a meta commentary on the TV finale: why must lives end when the show does? What unites the previous three points is that Gilligan and Co. became too caught up in the story-ness of their story; they insisted on tying everything up with a tidy morality-tale bow. David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos,” never let us forget that evil sometimes walks way unscathed. Young Todd, the sociopath’s sociopath, should have seen White coming, considered the odds, and taken off to cook, and kill, another day.

For the New Yorker’s Culture blog: ‘Exile in Guyville,’ 20 Years Later:

Liz_Phair-Exile_In_Guyville-TraseraTo me, each song on “Exile in Guyville” reverberates powerfully, making it patently one of the strongest rock albums ever made. But the legacy of its maker is going to be of the what-might-have-been variety, the story of someone who took a look at what Joni Mitchell called the “star-making machinery” and neither engaged it nor quite walked away, with ambiguous consequences.

For the Wall Street Journal,  “Restless Wanderer” (Notes on the 25th Anniversary of Bob Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour):

PJ-BP073_dylan_DV_20130625172731It is a remarkable achievement—though not one that Mr. Dylan himself acknowledges. In the 1990s, he wrote, “There was a Never Ending Tour but it ended.” His organization doesn’t talk about his performances. No wonder then that, as the endeavor clicks into its 26th year with yet another leg of shows starting this week—dubbed the Americanarama Tour, with special guests Wilco and My Morning Jacket on board—no special note will be taken of the occasion.

But if it is not the Never-Ending Tour, it is a never-ending tour. As with many things Dylan, his motivations run deep. The shows align him with an earlier era—when blues and country musicians created their art on small stages in small towns or in small corners of big towns. They also trenchantly separate him from the current era. The modern rock-superstar act tours with a new album to sell and a new image to show off. (That’s why Coldplay was running around in Sgt. Pepper jackets a few years ago.) Mr. Dylan just keeps playing, and rarely does interviews. Highly scripted video and light cues make spontaneity in most if not all big-name rock shows rare. By contrast, Mr. Smith has said he often didn’t know what Mr. Dylan was going to play next.

In the New Yorker, an essay on the legacy of Michael Jackson: NYer cover 12-24-12

“No man achieves immortality through public acclaim,” said Bob Dylan, who had the opportunity to consider such things up close. From the point of view of celebrity and popularity—the point of view that truly mattered to him—Jackson may well have been the most successful entertainer ever. His life and career remain sensational to all of us who marvelled as the black music that has run as a counterpoint to the past century—through gospel, jazz, the blues, soul, and hip-hop— resolved itself to play, for a time, perfectly in tune with a nation. Still, there’s little doubt that Jackson lost something self-defining along the way. He ended up a shade, and, besides the music, all that he really left behind—an ambiguous legacy, and a tarnished name, to some rich white kids—was just the final, meaningless step in the ultimate crossover.

 

In New York magazine, a look back at David Bowie’s bracing, ineffable early career:ny mag cover

David Bowie—indigestibly arch; unfailingly cerebral, distant, and detached—was always sincere about his insincerity, but never insincere about his sincerity. At the time, this distinction was as crucial and confounding as the highly sexualized, polymorphously perverse demimonde he celebrated. He mocked rock seriousness, even as he delivered some of the most lasting songs of the era, all the while carrying himself like a lubricious aristocrat, drawing, with a sort of kinky noblesse oblige, strength from his audience’s adulation and in turn bestowing his blessing: E pluribus pervum.

 

Last thoughts on ‘Breaking Bad’

Breaking-Bad-Season-511) The machina ex machina.

Walter White’s last great plan involved the creation of a jerry-rigged gatling gun. He was a chemist by trade, and chemistry was the show’s thematic through-line over five seasons of chemical reactions and carbon-based life forms. Why did the final episode hinge on something out of “Wild Wild West”?

And even by the standards of a series that had already offered us a truck-borne supermagnet, this was a hugely improbable device, one that would have been useful only under a very precise set of physical circumstances. White—surprise!—managed to find himself in exactly those circumstances. (He could have been forced to leave his car outside the fence, or been taken down into the meth lab, rendering his contraption useless.) The plan had no way to be adapted to a different situation, and not much nuance, either. I thought about it for 30 seconds and came up with the idea of an explosion that distracts the gang and then a gas that puts the thugs to sleep. White could have rescued young Jesse and called the cops as he left. (I could imagine him telling the 911 dispatcher wryly, “They are armed but won’t be dangerous for eight hours or so.”) The White Power guys would have been found with the blue meth lab, and he could have made his peace with …

2) Pinkman Agonistes.

Among the various narrative arcs of the show, the one that saw the systematic unraveling of Jesse Pinkman was its starkest and most visceral. Pinkman began as a fairly gentle soul with only faint antisocietal leanings. With White as a catalyst, he is first turned into a monster and then, as if in penance, became, of the characters left alive, the show’s most potent sufferer. His agony became another of the psychic weights around Walter’s neck. The last show made no note of this, and our last image of Jesse was a manic and gleeful one. But of course the brutality of the physical and mental traumas he had suffered, his lack of a support system, and his tendency to self-medicate don’t make his future bright. Our final glimpse of him had no hint of this and was accordingly false.

3) Envoi.

The enormity of White’s (d)evolution built steadily to what was to me the series emotional ground zero: “What the hell is wrong with you?” he raged at his cowering but defiant wife and son a few weeks back. “We’re a family.” This absurd speech was bookended by his confession to Skyler in the finale: “I liked it,” he said, talking about his ascent to druglordship.

The two positions are mutually exclusive. Either he became a true maniac, raging in some Learlike extremity, or he was a canny and clever master criminal. In fact, “Breaking Bad” is about male ego. White was a milquetoast at the show’s beginning, condescended to by his brother-on-law and pitied by his son. In TV terms, he was turning himself into a Ralph Cramden, an Archie Bunker, or a Tony Soprano; the hulking, raging male overlord. And yet he is allowed to die with a smile on his face, as if this was his plan all along, Ozymandias does not rest so easily.

4) The tyranny of the finale.

A famous Agatha Christie book ends with thick sheaf of blank pages. She wanted to the end of the book not to be anticipated by her readers. The ending of “The Sopranos,” famously, came on a note of total ambiguity. Among other things, the scene was a meta commentary on the TV finale: why must lives end when the show does? What unites the previous three points is that Gilligan and Co. became too caught up in the story-ness of their story; they insisted on tying everything up with a tidy morality-tale bow. David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos,” never let us forget that evil sometimes walks way unscathed. Young Todd, the sociopath’s sociopath, should have seen White coming, considered the odds, and taken off to cook, and kill, another day.

The Replacement’s Last Show: “Not sad pathetic, just sad sad.”

Word from Minneapolis is that the Replacements are preparing a series of reunion shows, which will take place in Sunday in Toronto, in Chicago Sept. 15, and in Denver Sept. 21 as part of the RiotFests.

The band deserves whatever money it’s going to get. They were my favorite band for a long time. Here, from a piece I did for the Chicago Reader, complete with a fairly prescient antepenultimate sentence, is what happened at what turned out to be their last live appearance at the city’s Fourth of July concert, 22 years—gulp—ago.

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Whether or not the Replacements show at WXRT’s Fourth of July concert was the group’s last, it sure sounded like it. The band’s hour or so onstage was desultory and sad–not sad pathetic, just sad sad. The songs–nearly all of them woeful tales from the rock ‘n’ roll front–tumbled out one after the other, the band’s attitude throughout one of thorough self-disgust. It was difficult to hear the offhand comments from either Paul Westerberg or Tommy Stinson, but they sounded cynical and hostile. At one point, Stinson asked the crowd how it was doing: he wasn’t clear, the response was tepid, so he then replied something to the effect of “Yeah, well, that’s why we’re not going to be doing this anymore.” Paul Westerberg, his youthful, defiant exuberance depleted, seemed particularly humorless. (His one great line was “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” a tip of the hat to ‘XRT, which was broadcasting the show). But his apathy was understandable: his worst nightmare–his career being reduced to going through the motions onstage–came true right before his (and, worse, our) very eyes.

Westerberg and Stinson were the last holdovers of the violent quartet who ruined themselves trying to transfer Westerberg’s jittery genius onto records and stages throughout the last half of the 80s. They succeeded only intermittently, but it’s worth noting that when they did–on songs like “Within Your Reach,” “Unsatisfied,” “Left of the Dial,” “Alex Chilton,” maybe half-a-dozen others, and as often as not in their live shows–the magic that came out of Westerberg’s scruffy self-deprecation (“We ain’t much to look at so / Close your eyes and here we go”) and the band’s sociopathic attack was as wondrous to them as it was to us; no less-Olympian pretenders will ever aspire to the crown Westerberg chased. Since Westerberg so plainly was capable of capturing the imagination of an audience (it’s not that easy), the Replacements’ commercial lack of success does indeed seem tragic. If the group is now kaput–people around the band are being very close-mouthed and the official word from management is that this was merely the last show of 1991–Westerberg will of course continue solo, which will either open up his songwriting or demonstrate how much he needed the authenticity of a little terrorist like Stinson to keep him on track. At the end of the show, there was in fact no ending–the members of the band just straggled offstage, passing their instruments off to roadies, who then continued playing. You could practically see Westerberg roll his eyes as he left the stage, enervated and weary.

For the New Yorker’s Culture blog: Last Thoughts on ‘Exile in Guyville’

Liz_Phair-Exile_In_Guyville-TraseraLiz Phair’s Exile in Guyville was released 20 years ago this week; as I wrote below, the run-up to the album’s release and the subsequent sensation it caused was a very fun time.

I did a piece for the New Yorker’s web site about the album, Phair, and her discontents.

To me, each song on “Exile in Guyville” reverberates powerfully, making it patently one of the strongest rock albums ever made. But the legacy of its maker is going to be of the what-might-have-been variety, the story of someone who took a look at what Joni Mitchell called the “star-making machinery” and neither engaged it nor quite walked away, with ambiguous consequences.

You can read it here.

For the Wall St. Journal: Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour, at 25

PJ-BP073_dylan_DV_20130625172731I did a piece for the Wall Street Journal this week on the 25th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s insane marathon of later life touring—2500-plus shows.

The piece is here.

I’ve found the tour thrilling, enlightening and frustrating, as have many other fans. An extended essay I wrote on the original shows of the tour, in Northern California back in 1988, can be found here.

Bob Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour—the first review

dylanIn June 1988, when Bob Dylan announced a series of shows in Northern California, no one knew what to expect. It’s hard to remember now, but Dylan hadn’t embarked on a quote-unquote normal tour in a long time. There was the gospel tour, in 1979 and ’80. Then another largely gospel tour, in ’81. I was living in the Bay Area at the time; as a wee lad I was an usher at Bill Graham’s Warfield Theater, and so got to see most of his extended runs at the venue.

Then came the Tom Petty tour, and then, sigh, came the one with the Grateful Dead tour. As someone who was critical of the shows at the time, it was of some interest to me to read, in Dylan’s autobiography, that he, too, understood he’d been phoning the shows in.

The 1988 tour began in Concord, east of Berkeley, on June 7. Neil Young played for a big chunk of the show. I didn’t see the next night, up in Davis, but then saw the Berkeley show, at the Greek Theater, and then the one down on the peninsula, at Shoreline Amphitheater.

The shows, before half-filled halls in Concord and at Shoreline, and before a sold-out one in the smaller Greek Theater,  were amazing. The piece below is from the East Bay Express, the alternative paper in Berkeley. My review of the shows turned out to be a cover story.

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Dylan Redux

By Bill Wyman

Bob Dylan: …Just look outside the window at the picket fences and the pine trees. New England falls are so beautiful, aren’t they? Look at those two kids playing by the train tracks. They remind me of myself. Both of them.

Jonathan Colt: Did you ever lie down on the tracks?

Bob Dylan: Not personally. I once knew someone who did.

Jonathan Colt: What happened?

Bob Dylan: I lost track of him…

Friday, June 10: It was nine o’clock. The sun had just set on what was possibly the most beautiful day of the year. We were waiting for Dylan. Continue reading

“Exile in Guyville” at 20—The first Liz Phair interview

exile-in-guyvilleMany years ago, Hitsville lived in Chicago, where the column “Hitsville” graced the pages of the Chicago Reader, back then a formidable journalistic presence in the city. One night at Lounge Ax, I met a diminutive, talkative woman, who after a lively conversation gave me a blank-label cassette of songs she’d been working on for Matador.
I listened to it, and called her the next day. We had breakfast on on a cold snowy Sunday at the original Wishbone. She was a lot of fun to talk to, even then displaying her highly attuned perception when it came to pop imagery, particularly in the sexual realm. Somewhere I still have the napkin on which she sketched her intent for the cover of the album—the now-iconic “blowjob queen” image—which was going to be a topless photo-booth shot cropped strategically at the nipple.
My column about our conversation, which ran that week, began a highly enjoyable period of Liz Phair mania in Chicago over the next year or so. The best part was the first six months, which culminated in the official release of the tape she had given me, Exile in Guyville.
The column ran Jan. 28, 1993.
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Greetings From Guyville: Liz Phair’s Girl-o-centric Exile

By Bill Wyman

Liz Phair says she decided some years ago that her first record would be a double album; having heard that Exile on Main St. was a fine example of the form, she immersed herself in it. The title of her eventual debut, Exile in Guyville, is a grateful salute. (The rest of the title is a sardonic nod to the Wicker Park band scene dubbed “Guyville” on the last Urge Overkill album.) The 25-year-old Phair, brash as they come, insists that the songs on her record are designed to be read in an intense and exact song-to-song correspondence with the original Exile: Her 18 songs, she says, should be consumed in 5-4-5-4 bursts matching the original work’s four sides. Indeed, mention a song from the Stones’ Exile and Phair will immediately launch into singsong lyrics, rapid-fire analysis, and intermittent bursts of air guitar to illustrate this or that musical point.

Continue reading

Liz Phair—The Option interview

In which Our Liz reflects on the chaos in her life as the release of Exile in Guyville approaches.

This was a cover story in Option magazine in 1993, back then a leading journal of indie rock.

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Liz Phair’s Suburban Blues

Is She Weird? Is She White?

By Bill Wyman

“I’m thrown off by people who know exactly what they want me to do, right now,” says Liz Phair, “because I simply don’t have a clue. I’ve always changed my mind a lot. And now I’m having changes of heart at a rate I never had before.”

The words — cautious, confused, self-aware — are typical of Liz Phair. The Chicago singer-songwriter has entranced tastemakers from one coast to the other with her debut album Exile In Guyville (Matador), a brash but nuanced song cycle on the trouble with boys, girls and with Liz Phair herself. The previously unknown (even in Chicago) artist is showing off what may turn out to be a volatile belnd of talent, smarts and looks, and the circling industry is already causing problems for her.

Continue reading

What’s Hitsville been up to?

A few recent pieces:

In Slate, an essay on the breakup of R.E.M.:

r.e.m. albumR.E.M., with its odd progenitors, few of which trafficked in artifice, was a band somewhat out of time from its inception. And, at the beginning, R.E.M. didn’t matter. The only way you could hear music was on your local radio stations. (MTV had begun, of course, but cable wasn’t as big and college kids, particularly, didn’t have universal access to it.) Commercial radio didn’t play R.E.M.; program directors at the time were openly contemptuous of them. Commercial-radio playlists were determined by “research,” which often consisted of playing listeners 30 seconds of new songs over the phone. Vagueness and dreaminess didn’t play well in that context.

In the New York Times Book Review, a look at Electric Eden, Rob Young’s sprawling history of Britain’s visionary folk music:

electric edenThe visionaries here, in broad terms, are folkies who drew their inspiration from the music of a bucolic past rooted in the land — the nascent Britain of long-ago Albion, with a millennium or two of fairies, druids and whatnot to pick from. These artists rejected the decaying industrial England they saw around them in favor of a simpler pastoral one that enlivened their yearnings with mysticism, (really) retro clothing and mannered vocalizing. Young sees this as a search for an “electric Eden”; his vast travelogue encompasses novels, films, poems and BBC documentaries; reams of folk, religious and spiritualist scholarship; tales of public flamboyance, festivals and hippie-dippy explorations; and, first and foremost, music.

In Slate, an essay on the anniversary of 9/11 about four 9/11 movies that always get overlooked:

Donnie Darko rabbitThe thematic similarities are too great to ignore. A central character separates, in one way or another, from life, from the reality of being. Each film evocatively creates a heightened sense of reality for its characters that we the audience inhale as well. Each features a shock, a wrenching sideways, whether from that plane engine falling on a suburban house to the revelation that something is very, very wrong with poor Betty. The tragedy that hangs over each story is another similarity: In each case, the dread of loss touches the audience in some fundamental way. That’s a key point: None of these four directors is cynical or nihilistic. (An aesthetic position Lynch, for example, is not a stranger to.) In each of these signal works, a sense of humanity, of the great worth of every life—and a shuddering appreciation of the apocalypse that accompanies every individual death—is palpable.

In Slate, an essay on the most extravagant sitcom episode ever made:

community Writing about the NBC show Community, a sitcom set in a studiously unstudious community college, is difficult. The show is so self-referential that it has already discussed itself comprehensively. Recently in Slate, I referred in passing to an elaborate, mind-bending episode, “Paradigms of Human Memory.” Community isn’t a high-cost or highly rated show, and it couldn’t have been easy for the producers to put together such a dense and multilayered 22 minutes. “Paradigms” is being rerun this week. In its honor, let’s attempt to unpack what might be the most complex sitcom episode ever filmed.

In Slate, last thoughts on Amy Winehouse:

She was boozy and disheveled, a tarted-up gamin somehow reminiscent both of a blowzed ’60s pinup and a canny street urchin, all wrapped up with the bow of her almost Dickensian name on top. Yet she radiated precision and formalism in her music. Her gaze on a stage could be vacant, almost affectless. But somehow her albums betray an astringent intelligence, over- and undertones of meaning and calculation, and a surprisingly nuanced grasp of the music she loved from decades long past. And her arresting voice conveyed not just emotion, but on occasion universal cataclysms of love, loss, and degradation.

Also in Slate, an essay, Groundhog Decade: Hollywood is about to repeat the catastrophic mistakes of the music industry.

It’s about how illegal media isn’t just free, it’s easier to use—and the implications that has on the movies and TV industries as they face the same challenges the music industry did over the past decade.

There were many, many, engrossing comments on the topic. You can read them here. I was also on Slate’s Gabfest on the subject.

Also in Slate, Steve Carell’s Achievement: He made The Office bleaker, funnier, and more sadly American.

In The Atlantic Online, an essay on Katie Couric’s time as anchor of CBS news, and a story about the complete archives of Spy Magazine coming online.

In Slate, Lester Bangs’ Basement: What it means to have all music instantly available, in which I go spelunking in the illegal file-sharing networks, trying to find out if anything is rare any more.

In the Wall Street Journal, a look back at a long-lost Rolling Stones concert documentary, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones.

In SlatePlease Allow Me To Correct a Few Things: Imagine if Mick Jagger responded to Keith Richards about his new autobiography.

This was an essay on Keith Richard’s Life. My piece in Hitsville about the worldwide reaction to the Slate review is here.

Other responses included Reason, the Washington Post, and the Village Voice.

For the Wall Street Journal, an opinion column, What Newspapers Can Learn from Craigslist.

Notes for the ‘Spirit of the Senses’ Lecture

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 3.50.56 p.m.

For those attending my talk at the Spirit of the Senses, here are a few of the articles discussed:

screen-shot-2010-11-14-at-122741-pm.pngSalon:

Prime Time Propaganda: How the White House secretly hooked network TV on its anti-drug message: A Salon special report.

By Daniel Forbes

———-

Radio’s Big Bully: Dirty tricks and crappy programming: Welcome to the world of Clear Channel, the biggest station owner in America.

By Eric Boehlert

————-

screen-shot-2010-11-14-at-42646-pm.pngNPR:

Where are all the women record producers?

By Neda Ulaby

Inside the strange world of the cadaver exhibit

By Neda Ulaby

————-

Continue reading

The curious case of the newspaper mention of how Starbucks used to sell CDs

starbucks.jpg“But the newspaper didn’t mention the fact that Starbucks used to sell CDs. ”

“That was the curious incident.”

Four years ago, all we heard about was how Starbucks was going to change the music industry. Why, Paul McCartney was selling his new album through Starbucks!

The breathless stories never said that only the novelty of the pairing, combined with the high disposable incomes of the typical Starbucks patron, was what allowed such things to (evanescently) happen. As Hitsville predicted over and over, the arrangements were dead ends, and would not be repeated. Anytime how the music is being sold is being talked about instead of the quality of the music, the quality of the music isn’t good.

The NYT story today on the difficulties the coffee retailer is having doesn’t even mention the chain’s insanely overcovered foray into the music business.

Why should it have mentioned it?

Because a quick search I just did suggests the paper had the words “Starbucks” and “music” in the same story 177 times in a 18-month period, many of the pieces more than 1000 words.  (I suspect something similar would turn up in the WSJ, though I can’t do that search on the paper’s web site.)

Last thoughts on Steve Martin and Deborah Solomon

screen-shot-2010-12-07-at-83230-am.pngThe nation was rocked, last week, by the unexpected disclosure of a top-level secret communication. I’m not talking about the WikiLeaks cache of diplomatic cables. I’m referring about the note the producers of a Manhattan literary series sent to New York Times writer Deborah Solomon as she interviewed actor Steve Martin on stage at the 92nd Street Y.

 

Solomon made the fateful decision to read the note aloud, and the words reverberate still. The chattering classes have reacted to famines with less Sturm und Drang.

 

The pair were there in front of an $50-person sell-out audience. Martin, who also writes books, had recently published a new novel set amid the Manhattan contemporary-art scene, and, according to coverage of the event, it was about that novel and that scene—and nothing else—the pair conversed.

 

One of the organizers eventually approached Solomon as she sat on stage—and handed her a note asking her to broaden the topics under discussion. When the audience members heard what the note said, they broke into a cheer. Solomon and Martin, quite rightly, took this as a rebuke to their talk thus far.

 

The world, scandalized that a celebrity’s feelings had been hurt, was on the side of the interlocutors. Many took to Facebook to post stories about the imbroglio, dismayed at what they saw as a lowbrow crowd.

 

The next day, however, the Y essentially doubled down on its position, and offered refunds to all those who attended. Martin spent the day on Twitter, exhibiting some humor. “Made love to wife,” he tweeted at one point. “She demanded refund.” (This was perhaps an unfortunate metaphor, given that both the presenters of the event and the audience were the ones feeling screwed.) Solomon pronounced the reaction “philistine”—and engendered a second wave of hurrahs. The op-ed page of the New York Times was quickly opened to let a wounded Martin vent.

 

The events sits nicely at the conflux of several interesting trends in pop culture: The walled-off world of celebrity, the complicit posture of the media, and the accompanying numbing of the audience’s expectations.

 

Martin is a smart and talented man who may or may not be a bit insecure in his intelligence. Philosophy classes he took, long ago in a junior college he dropped out of, seem to loom large in his personal mythology. Like Sylvester Stallone before him, he has donned a pair of bookish glasses and immersed himself in the world of fine art. His new book calls attention to his interest in this realm, in which he buys and sells paintings in the seven and even eight figures.

 

This expensive hobby is funded by starring roles in films that find themselves, surprisingly often, on worst-movies-of-the-year lists. Since 1999, he has starred in no fewer than five releases tagged with a red rating of 40 or less on Metacritic, the web site that analyzes movie reviews. (Rob Schneider, a name synonymous with below-the-bottom-of-the-barrel humor, has six.) Martin takes the paychecks and even goes the extra mile to appear in the sequels (Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Pink Panther 2) but doesn’t use his comedic gifts to elevate their humor above the dismal.

 

Martin is not asked about these films unless he’s promoting one or another of them, generally in the hinterlands. For tony outlets like the Times or the New Yorker, he makes himself available to talk about his books, his personal filmic vanity projects, or his banjo playing. This convenient compartmentalization is in keeping with the laser-like focus of modern entertainment marketing, which maximizes media exposure to benefit the product at hand. This phenomenon, combined with the insular and sycophantic world most stars live in day to day, perhaps explains why Martin was so shocked to learn that he wasn’t being interesting. 

 

As for Solomon, she’s a journalist who in the past has gotten into trouble for taking a few too many liberties with her weekly Q&A column in the New York Times magazine. (Turned out she took “A’s” and repurposed them to “Q’s” she never asked.) In that column, she is known for the curveballs, glibness and snark with which she confronts her subjects, who are generally second-tier figures and safe targets. Martin, by contrast a rich and powerful man, was treated with an uncharacteristic solicitude, and he returned the favor by testifying to her interviewing prowess and calling her a “friend” in his op-ed piece.

 

This comfy alliance between star and media is sadly typical and contributes mightily to the banality of much entertainment writing. It’s worth noting again that the crowd, pace Solomon’s rude attack, had taken its medicine stoically. Only when the audience members found an unlikely ally in the presenters of the program did they let their feelings be heard, and delivered the cheer heard ’round the world. Given the celebrity dynamics at work, the fact that the Y staff took that step has to be seen as definitive. One hopes it’s not the last time that a pretentious star and an overly solicitous journalist hear a similar sound.

 

Notes for the Cronkite School lecture

cronkite-school.png

For those attending my talk at the Cronkite School Monday night, here are a few of the articles discussed:

screen-shot-2010-11-14-at-122741-pm.pngSalon:

Prime Time Propaganda: How the White House secretly hooked network TV on its anti-drug message: A Salon special report.

By Daniel Forbes

———-

Radio’s Big Bully: Dirty tricks and crappy programming: Welcome to the world of Clear Channel, the biggest station owner in America.

By Eric Boehlert

————-

screen-shot-2010-11-14-at-42646-pm.pngNPR:

Where are all the women record producers?

By Neda Ulaby

Inside the strange world of the cadaver exhibit

By Neda Ulaby

————-

Also:

Five Reasons Newspapers Are Failing: … and why they don’t get talked about much

By Bill Wyman

Five reasons (and 9,000 words) on Why Newspapers Are Tanking

By David Carr

———

screen-shot-2010-11-15-at-121346-pm.pngPlease Allow Me To Correct a Few Things: What if Mick Jagger responded to Keith Richards’ Autobiography?

By Bill Wyman

Mick Jagger on Keith Richards– A postscript

Also, coverage from the Washington Post:

Pick of the day: Bill Wyman imagines Mick Jagger responding to Keith Richards’ book

Reason Magazine:

 Thinking the Unthinkable: Sympathy for Mick Jagger

The Czech Republic:

Keith Richards nije razumio zašto želim sobu dalje od nekog tko putuje s nabijenim pištoljem

and:

Craziness on Twitter.

Mick Jagger on Keith Richards—a postscript

keith-richards-life.jpgThe piece I wrote about Keith Richards’ autobiography–“Please Allow Me To Correct a Few Things”–got a lot of attention, which I’m happy about ’cause it took a lot of work! Slate said I could write a review (straight) at 1100 words, and they ended up with this, which was close to 5500 and written from an indefensible point of view.

I’m grateful they published it and appreciative of everyone who took the time to read it.

The genesis of it was the re-release of the 1972 concert movie, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, which, if you haven’t seen it, is one of the great lost documents of the era; I did a reported piece about it for the Wall Street Journal

That ferocious documentary got me on a Stones kick for the first time in at least ten years. Then I noticed Richards’ autobiography would be coming out in a couple of months, and so started reading all my old Stones books.

I made an old friend from high school (we’d seen the band together in 1978) come over and watch Rolling Stones movies with me for a weekend. (Thanks, Dirk!)

In the end, I watched Gimme Shelter, One Plus One, Cocksucker Blues, Hyde Park, Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus, all the way up to the Forty Licks films—along with virtually every bit of film footage of the Stones that existed, from the early 1960s TV appearances to the 1970s-era short films by Michael Lindsay-Hogg to the cheesalicious 1980s videos.

The publisher said the book was embargoed, and wouldn’t give me an advance copy. I spent my time reading STP, the Robert Greenfield 1972 tour chronicle; Old Gods Almost Dead, Stephen Davis’s fairly substantive but poorly sourced history; the essential Up and Down with the Rolling Stones, an unputdownable memoir by Richards’ infamous drug-runner, “Spanish Tony” Sanchez; Bill Wyman’s memoirs; all of Rolling Stone magazine’s original coverage of the band; and many other various things I had lying around–the band’s oral history, some funny artifacts from the 1960s (like David Dalton’s fabulous omnibus volume), second-tier bios of Jagger and Jones, etc. etc.

I also listened to a lot of Stones stuff with fresh ears. Most dutifully, I made an mp3 disc of post-Tattoo You studio work, which I listened to while driving around. This brought up painful memories of preparing to see the band on their latter-day tours. I am quite sure that, “Keith Songs,” aside, there is very little worthwhile on those albums.

Look at the dozens, the scores, of songs the bands has released on live albums and concert films in the last 20 years. “Start Me Up” aside, post-Some Girls material is rare, post-Undercover work virtually nonexistent.

Finally got the book the day it came out. (My review copy came in the mail a week later. Thanks, Hachette.) Read it and talked to Slate, who gave me the 1100-word assignment on the Friday. My mind just took a weird turn over the weekend. I sent a 4500-word version to my editor on Monday morning. I included a note of apology at the top and acknowledged it wasn’t the assignment. He could kill it if he wanted.

At some point during the first reading he replied, “This is crazy in a fascinating way.”

… and then said it was fine!

He asked the central question: How much of the piece was speculation, and how much was absolute fact?

If anyone cares, here’s the answer: I tried to have it all be fairly incontrovertible. There are quite a few other stories in the quote-unquote record, such as it is, about the Stones, much grimier than what I included. In the deathless memoir of Spanish Tony’s, there are a lot of disputed stories. One is Richards’ going to Switzerland to get his blood replaced. Richards says it didn’t happen, and someone I talked to who was there at the time said it didn’t either, so I left it out.

Sanchez also has a horrific story to the effect that, while living in Jamaica Richards started to mix it up with the local gendarmerie … and then split town, leaving Anita Pallenberg behind. Pallenberg, the story goes, was arrested and thrown in a fetid local jail for a week, with horrific results. Davis repeats it without supporting documentation and Richards denies it, and I left it out, too. Davis also says, incredibly, that Bill Wyman’s wife was assaulted in Jamaica as well–as Wyman cowered under the hotel room bed! There’s no source; I couldn’t figure out where that story came from. He also says Richard’s third child, the one he sent off to live with his mother, was born with a cleft palate, another unsourced aside; Richards doesn’t mention this at all, and neither does Spanish Tony, who you’d think would. 

I believe most of Sanchez’s book, though. Richards himself, who like most of his coterie holds Sanchez in contempt, nevertheless much later said, “Well, yeah, it’s all factually true …”

These stories all would have added some more of the unpleasant reality I think was missing from Richards’ books, but I didn’t feel comfortable including them. Just for space reasons I left out a litany of the many friends of the band who died from drugs or drug-related causes, and the very talented people (Jimmy Miller, Gram Parsons, Stanley Booth) who spun wildly in the Stones’ centrifugal circle before being thrown out, generally with debilitating new habits suddenly much harder to maintain.

I also left out Jagger’s reflections on “Brown Sugar” and John Lennon.

All of the other stuff is pretty well established; the vast majority of it in Richards’ actual book–just told from his unreflective perspective.

Anyway, the editor said he could use the piece, and I repaid his indulgence by adding another 800 words.


bill-wyman-stone-alone.jpgBill Wyman, the band’s bassist, seems to be an interesting guy; you have to remember, though, that he was seven years older than Jagger and Richards, had a wife and kids, and had served in the RAF. He wasn’t part of that fetid demimonde than spawned the Rolling Stones.

His massive memoir, Stone Alone, is an exhausting retelling of just the band’s first six or seven years, unfolding with perhaps a bit too much attention to financial and sexual details, right down the pounds and pence he was paid for each early show.

But he’s very frank about Stones macro-money matters as well, including stuff that seems banal from the outside but might really matter from the inside, particularly if, as I tried to convey in the article, you really weren’t making money commensurate with your fame.

For example, when the band settled with Allen Klein, they split the settlement two ways. Half went to Jagger and Richards (the songwriters), half divided amongst the full band, minus expenses. Wyman and Charlie Watts had to point out that they were paying 20 percent of the legal bills but only receiving ten percent of the settlement.

 I love stuff like that. They eventually got a bigger share.

 Similarly, it was Wyman and Watts who, 15 years after Ron Wood joined the band, raised a ruckus with Jagger and got Wood a full share of concert proceeds. If that’s true, since then Wood may have taken in a quarter share of some $1.5 billion in gross tour receipts alone, so it probably was worth the wait.)

(Wyman left after the 1994 tour, leaving four core members again.)

 Wyman, of course, also sent me a cease and desist letter about ten years ago. It was largely silly, but for some reason it briefly became literally an international news story. I spent two weeks doing “Morning Zoo” radio shows across the country and being interviewed on radio stations over most of western Europe and Australia, which I did just because I thought he was being, even by his standards, excessively anal.

 You can read my account of that here.

Since I was a rock critic for a long time, the entirely uninteresting fact that I shared the same name as a rock performer was never mentioned inside the music industry; Stones publicists had been giving me press tickets and even backstage passes without comment for twenty years.

The only other time our lives intersected was some time in the early 1990s when I started getting checks in the mail – checks for odd amounts: $32.81 and the like.

It’s obvious in this context what was going on, but at the time it was a mystery. The checks, which had my social security number on them, were written from the account of a company with a generic name that was awful hard to find. This was in pre-internets days. The company didn’t have a listed phone number, for example, in any of the cities I tried.

I finally found it and talked to its proprietor. It turned out he paid out residuals for Dick Clark Productions. I was a member of AFTRA at the time; that’s how the wires got crossed.

The Rolling Stones had been on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert back in the day and VH1 was rerunning the episode. Wyman made 30 bucks each time it did. The guy spent most of his time tracking down American Bandstand dancers.

For an example of how times have changed, I remember a story Paul Williams, the great early rock critic, told me. He was at Warners in LA back in the day and bumped into Richard Perry, a pop superproducer of the era.

Perry told Williams he’d just auditioned a new group, one of whose members he was going to sign. The singer’s name was Paul Williams, too. “But don’t worry,” Perry said. “We’ll make him change it so there won’t be any confusion with you.”

“Don’t bother,” Williams said.

 paul-williams.jpg

 

There’s been some confusion about the piece, besides people thinking it was real. Some say it was parody, some satire.

 It’s neither.

It’s just a book review, done to make a central point: That the solipsism of Richards’ book becomes, if you stop to think about it at all, slightly disconcerting. Step away for just a bit and look at it from a new perspective, say from that of a close associate, and it becomes almost monstrous.

Which brings me to the second point, if I can get on a high horse for a moment: It’s also a piece of press criticism. It’s remarkable how many people just take celeb bios on their own terms. Particularly considering Richards’ big selling point is his alleged no-holds-barred honesty, there’s a lot of obvious questions raised in Life that aren’t answered. It’s odd to me virtually all the other reviewers didn’t notice them.

Beyond that, leaving aside the various horrors Richards didn’t talk about, you can also turn the question around.

Here’s what’s being presented. In that context, it’s fun to think, Well, what are they thinking about? Virtually everything we read about them, remember, they’ve decided they want us to think about. That’s how modern pop-culture marketing works.

That’s what I like about the Allen Klein story. This is perhaps the greatest artistic theft of the 20th century. It makes me sick to my stomach to think about. I think it would still be in their minds.

Desperate for sophisticated management at the height of their ’60s fame, the Stones thought in Klein they had a ruthless guy who could do battle with the record companies. He presented the band with papers to sign that appeared to consolidate their affairs into their existing company.

Actually, he had incorporated a new company in the U.S … and named it after the Stones’ outfit. That’s how they lost their music.

There’s very little extant coverage of the court battle, some years later, during which the band ultimately severed its relations with him; you’d think that the Stones would have had a case against such blatant theft. But I assume that Klein knew what he was doing legally–and in the end, what could the band say but that they hadn’t read the documents they signed carefully enough?

According to Wyman’s book, the band figured Klein owned them $17 million in royalties, a pretty large sum in the early 1970s, but settled for $2 million, and did not get back control of their songs.

This created a tangled ownership structure that must have been humiliating; for example, a planned live album from the 1972 U.S. tour never came out after they got into permissions issues with Klein and Decca, their original British label.

I think the Stones don’t talk about it that much because it’s embarrassing to have been taken by such a crude trick. Then again, they aren’t the only major stars from the 1960s to have come out of the decade essentially broke.

I liked writing about the money, a point at where Jagger’s interests presumably dovetail with mine. Rolling Stone magazine, particularly, has a tic of presenting Stones tours as if they are big financial gambles, playing up how expensive the stage is and so forth. Leaving aside the quaint idea that it’s the Stones who are risking money, as opposed to the promoter of the tour, in crude terms the Stones cover their stage expenses their first week on the road. The amount of money the band generates on tour–as I say in the piece, sometimes $6 or $7 million a night from ticket sales alone–beggars belief.

 

Anyway, I didn’t expect there to be any real confusion about whether the thing was real–just on the ground of utter preposterousness.

But the Twitter feed was instructive; when things go viral, you can’t expect that everyone knows what Slate is or appreciate puckishness when it is presented to them.

At the same time, while I don’t believe in deliberately fooling people, the internets are quite corrective in these issues. Look at the comments thread in the story, or the Twitter feed; When someone thinks it’s real, they are quickly corrected.

Still, I have been surprised by those who I thought would have known better who didn’t get that the alleged manuscript was fake. So I didn’t mind that Slate tweaked the subhead to, “Imagine if Mick Jagger responded to Keith Richards about his new autobiography.”

A TV station in Philadelphia—Fox, natch—wrote a story about it as if it were real. The site took it down, and didn’t say why.

Google cached version here.

I also got a funny call from a big paper in New York. The guy started asking me about how Mick Jagger had sent me the piece. I interrupted to say that I’d written it.

What followed was one of those movie cliches — he kept asking me follow-up questions, until what I’d said registered.

“Wait — Mick Jagger didn’t write that?”

I said yes, he was correct. This is an exact transcript of what he said next:

“Oh, no–it’s on our story list. I can’t — I have to go. I have egg on my face!”

And he hung up the phone.

A lot of readers like the swipes at Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone. It’s pretty amusing to see the Spanish edition of the magazine buy the thing hook, line and sinker.

Finally, there are a lot of perceptive comments on the Slate comments section, which is here.

Again, many thanks to all who read, tweeted, commented on or wrote me about the piece.

The case against non-profit news sites


It’s understandable that journalists shocked at the financial state of their industry would at some point think about a non-profit business model.

 

Behind the cynicism of most reporters lies a romantic streak, for one. We like the idea of being able to pursue our dedication apart from the muddied waters of the profit motive.

 

For another, we’ve all seen the damage caused by the short-sighted drive for profits in the large companies that own so many of the nation’s daily papers.

 

It’s well established that cost-cutting and ever-increasing boardroom demands for higher returns crippled papers in various ways when they needed to figure out how to navigate the internet.

 

But it’s a dead end, for a number of reasons. Here’s a few.

 

1. There is no money in it.


As I have written about before, one of the unfortunate aspects of the debate about the future of newspapers is how little basic knowledge of the economics of the industry is brought to the discussion.

 

A precis: Newspapers didn’t sell news and we as readers did not pay for it. Subscriptions make (and made) up only a small percentage of the paper’s revenues.

 

Newspapers earn their money by selling ads on newsprint and delivering them, via a societal convention cum monopoly, to people’s doorsteps’ each morning. The value of that monopoly subsidized the news gathering.

 

Unfortunately, the monopoly is seeing its value plunge precipitously.

The point is this: Any plan to make money doing journalism that doesn’t contain a revenue source involving magic money on this scale isn’t going to work.

 

2. And that’s only half of it.

 

It’s likely that a lot of the people reading this essay fancy themselves news junkies or the like.

 

Most people aren’t like us.

 

They go—or rather, went—to the papers for the sports section, the ads, the stock tables, the comics, the TV listings, or because they always did, or because their parents did.

 

What was the percentage that actually, you know, read the news? 40 percent? 30 percent?

 

In the non-profit model we ask readers to pay us for the news, via tax-deductible donations or voluntary subscriptions. (I’m assuming the news wouldn’t be up behind a pay wall.) 

 

It’s far to take as a benchmark of the money available for this what people used to pay for the daily paper delivery; at least, it’s as good a measure as is available.

 

So if you want to transfer the economics of newsgathering to the web, you have to take the small percentage of revenue the papers actually got from subscriptions—10 percent, 20 percent?—and then take 30 percent of that.

 

I’m not saying my calculations aren’t crude, but I am saying it’s a realistic place to start.

 

Now, there’s an upside, actually, on the other half of the equation. Doing a high-minded nonprofit news operation on the web doesn’t have the same overhead as a big city paper does. Let’s start with no delivery drivers or printers, HR departments or page designers.

 

No more of those fluff non-news departments, and no unions, either!

 

Still.

 

The costs-to-potential-income ratio is vastly, fatally, lopsided.

 

3. It’s not just that the economic base of the operation will be small. The readership will be, too.

 

People say they want news, of course. World news! Investigative reporting! Reporters digging through public records!

 

Yeah, right.

 

Let’s stipulate the creation of your online news site, created as a nonprofit, that somehow managed to craft together donations from whatever sources to get a staff together and writing strong journalism.

 

If it spent that money presenting high-minded news, it wouldn’t get much readership.

 

At Salon.com, which I think is a fair example to give, in that it balanced serious and investigative journalism with, uh, lots of articles about sex and TV, we all saw how few people read the articles that took the most time and money and effort to produce.

 

Now, it didn’t always happen that way. If you kept banging on a particular issue, over time you could build up a decent readership for in-depth reported stories on the subject. As I recall, the series of articles Eric Boehlert wrote about scummy Clear Channel, which I had the privilege of working on, got some pretty good numbers after we’d posted a few.

 

But even those would be dwarfed by anything about “Survivor,” or Lord of the Rings, or certain sexual proclivities, or, in the tech world, the open-source darling of the time.

 

(Let me tell you, an article about a Star Wars/Lord of the Rings trivia contest between lesbian Linux programmers would have caused an internet meltdown.)

 

Here’s the issue: Trying to build readership for a nonprofit news organization from scratch will be extremely difficult.

 

The interest just isn’t out there.

 

4. Aha! say the non-profit proponents. We will leaven the investigative work and stuff that’s good for society with lighter fare!


OK, let’s do it.

 

We have two options. We can try to find that audience-building fare for free, or we can pay for it.

 

The first option can work, and sometimes does, even if it does tend to involve videos of cats playing the piano.

 

Let’s take a breath and examine our business plan for option one:

 

“People are going to give us money for a non-profit enterprise to produce high-quality journalism, which generally they don’t want to read, but we’re going to lure them in with non-high-quality but more popular things, which we will produce for free.”

 

Hmmm—time to fine-tune. The second option—paying for the other stuff—can be effective, too, given some sharp editors capable of finding and nurturing talent. But the editors cost money, and so does the talent.

 

And that puts you into another tangled position—raising money to pay for the lures to your site … to get people to read the stuff they don’t really care about reading, which you also want people to give you money for.

 

5. But let’s say you figure out how to thread that needle.

 

You get an extraordinary group of people together ready to create, for free, content that will bring readers to the site. That content will draw attention to your operation and its worthy and societally important hard-news reporting.

 

Never going to happen. Why?

 

Because in the old-fashioned terrestrial printing or broadcasting models, the organizations could always get a base audience just by virtue of the fact they existed. The magazines were on the newsstand, in the newspaper boxes on the street, on peoples’ doorsteps; the TV or radio stations were right there to be stumbled upon by potentials viewers or listeners.

 

On the web there is no de facto or built-in audience. You have to come up with something to draw attention to yourself.

 

But: A nonprofit company is a timid company.

 

I’m not saying they won’t publish tough articles on tough subjects.

 

But that’s the stuff we’ve already talked about: The stuff people say they want to read and never do, and that we journalists want people to read, but know they don’t.

 

I’m talking about things that will bring readers to the site. Elements that will take chances, create sensations, and draw attention to themselves.

 

Now, once in a while non-profits do that, too, and often laudably stand up and brave criticism, and even withdrawal of their funding.

 

But they don’t like it. And in the long run they can’t make provocation part of their day-to-day business model.

 

You want content that draws attention on the internet? It has to be provocative.

 

I don’t mean Glenn Beck provocative. But you need people to take counter-intuitive, iconoclastic positions, just to find some attention in the vast web.

 

That’s all well and good, until the people go a bit too far.

 

Going too far works in some ways. It draws in like-minded people, starts building a community. In that context, a provocative columnist, say, can feed them red meat.

 

But then that starts undercutting your reporters and the news gatherers. Soon, some of the people paying the bills, whether big ticket funders or, in the fantasy we’re working with here, the bunch of regular people willing to put up their hard earned money for good, straightforward hard-hitting journalism, will start having second thoughts.

 

“Is my money going to that?!?”

 

No no no, you explain. Your money is going for the reporters….

 

“… But see, since no one cares about what the reporters are doing, we have to find alternative ways of getting eyeballs on the site, and our scheme is to have Fred, there, develop a crazy following to bring in people to read the actual journalism….”

 

It would be great if a nonprofit news site had the cojones, if you will excuse the expression, to make that argument. It actually makes sense, and a talented person could probably pull it off. (More on that in a minute.)

 

But I don’t think that DNA is going to be in the makeup of these sites.

 

5. What you really need to do is find a visionary.


A strong and capable leader, committed to the non-profit model, willing to use his or her flamboyance and charisma to keep the money coming in and get the company through the inevitable crises with good humor and reputation intact, could, in theory, lead a non-profit news site to success. .

 

There’s not a lot of people like that. They are valuable if you can find them, of course, and that’s their major drawback: They cost money.

 

That site in SF is already taking heat for the $400,000 salary it’s doled out to its CEO, a veteran not of publishing but of the the McKinsey consulting firm … and we’re still waiting to hear what it’s paying the top editor.

 

ProPublica pays nearly $600,000 for its editor.

 

That’s a fair model, I guess, if you don’t care about money, the publication’s image, the morale of its employees, or just basic standards of what’s appropriate and what isn’t in the nonprofit sphere.

 

Alan Mutter, on his site Reflections of a Newsosaur, notes there’s another available, like the one used in Minneapolis, where a $1 million or so annual budget keeps 18 people on salary and a lot of freelancers writing.

 

That’s a model that can make an honest appeal to contributors. But whose going to donate to a local news site where editors are getting paid $400,000? Who’s going to contribute free content?

 

6. And finally, non-profits are too goddamned wholesome.

 

Here’s a cheap shot, but I think it’s a good example.

 

That startup in SF got a local rich guy to pony up $5 million for a nonprofit news site there. Some other groups are involved and there are some other funding sources, too.

 

It was originally called the Bay Area News Project.

 

The new name? The Bay Citizen.

 

What a crummy name. It’s hokey, wishful, dishonest, smarmy and abstract all at the same time. It sounds like something out of a Hardy Boys book.

 

Is that what that $400,000 McKinsey consultant is bringing to the table?

 

Take a look through some of the home pages of the nonprofit sites up and running now — in San Diego, Orange County, Minneapolis — and you will see very little that’s compelling.


I’m not saying they are bad. I’m sure a lot of the information they are generating is worthy, too. I’m just saying that most people aren’t going to give those sights a second look. The headlines are turgid; the designs are cluttered.

 

As for the lighter material, check out some of the provocative commentary on the Minneapolis site: “In defense of libraries, both home and public”; “Whistling songs: at least 15 ways to annoy your friends and co-workers.”

 

——–

 

The trouble behind all of this is that we want people to be different from the way they are.

 

In reporters’ dreams, we all chip in a little to give them a livelihood, and their earnest, dutiful stories are the talk of the town.

 

But it didn’t happen that way before, and it’s not going to happen in the future.

 

 

——–

 

Five Key Reasons Newspapers Are Dying (but don’t get talked about), part one.

 

Five Key Reasons Newspapers Are Dying (but don’t get talked about), part two.

 

 

A few words about Jim DeRogatis

Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago Sun-Times’ pop music critic, is leaving to teach at a Chicago college and blog for the local public radio station, WBEZ. (‘BEZ is also the host of the radio show, Sound Opinions, he does with the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot.)

The Sun-Times’ travails have gone on a ridiculously long time. In the form of a calamitous ownership by Rupert Murdoch, they predated my arrival in Chicago in 1988, and continue still. But the paper somehow managed to retain a formidable staff, which is of course what a newspaper is all about.

But people have been leaving, drip drip drip. DeRo’s departure was of course scooped by the amazing Rob Feder, who covered his beat at the Sun-Times (local radio and TV) better than any reporter I’ve ever watched. He not there any more, and did the story about DeRogatis for the ‘BEZ blogs.

Ebert remains, too. I don’t live in Chicago and so don’t see the paper day-to-day anymore. But the impression from afar is that it’s hard to see how losing people like Jim doesn’t represent the real beginning of a final door closing at the paper.

There’s a lot of talk about the disappearing film critics, or the disappearing rock critics. In fact, there’s a lot more and better writing on the web. The dirty secret is that most local film and rock critics aren’t that good, and even at prominent papers, as with most of the rock magazines, they fall into promotional writing, lassitude, and solopsism.

Jim’s an old friend, so take that into account when I say he was the best most aggressive and full-bodied pop writer in America. Was he irritating? Yes! Did he have hobby horses? Yes! Did he romanticize Lester Bangs too much? A thousand times yes!

But he listened aggressively, and championed new and local music, holding it to a national standard. He also took stands against rock’s geezer brigade, and took a lot of institutional heat for it. Unlike virtually every other pop music writer in America, he was also a reporter; he monitored the local scene, crusaded against city laws that threatened local live music, and just in general did more than do phoner interviews with pop acts coming through town.

He also wrote about the national music industry. He might be best-known nationally for breaking the R. Kelly story—and nearly going to jail because of it—but the salient fact there is that it wasn’t a fluke.

It was a natural result of being an actual fucking reporter—one whom people in the community turned to when there was an important story out there.

DeRogatis’s new position is at Columbia College in Chicago. It seems like a smart move for him—the S-T might not be around this time next year. He will still be doing his radio show and still writing. (Greg Kot, I should mention, is as formidable as DeRogatis on most of these counts; the city’s critical corps to this day far outstrips any other in the country.)

So I want to make clear. This isn’t a blow to readers, who will still be able to read him, or to DeRogatis, who will no doubt be better off outside of a calcifying institution; but it is the latest blow to a number of things: the country’s daily newspaper industry in general and the Sun-Times in particular, but also to a unique city’s sense of itself and shared experience.