Reflections of a Rock Critic Turning 70

Over a recent dinner, I asked a therapist friend how her patients reacted to celebrating their 70th birthday. I wasn’t asking for a friend. She said that the milestone prompts many to take pause to both assess their past and consider their hopes for what suddenly seems like a finite future. Everybody brings their own perspective to this rite of passage, and for me that included looking back on a professional life that revolved around popular culture. And since I didn’t die before I got old, this rock critic at seventy can be akin to a crotchety old man with tinnitus telling kids to stay away from his stereo.

Being born in 1952 might have helped to steer me into this dubious career choice. On the day before I turned twelve, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and I remember commenting to my sixth-grade peers that the group was “pretty catchy.”  A few years later, I wrote a review of Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company for my high school newspaper. By then friends and I were travelling from the suburbs into Manhattan to see shows at the Fillmore East, including the Who performing Tommy and the East Coast debut of The Band. On one trip, we observed Janis Joplin making out with some guy on the subway. Janis and her friend also got off at Astor Place and went their own way while we went to see Traffic. The Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park kept us busy in the summer with shows by Van Morrison, the Allman Brothers Band (flutist Herbie Mann dropped by to jam), and B.B. King opening for Led Zeppelin. I bought tickets for day two and three of the Woodstock Festival, but by the time we got stuck in traffic some 15 miles from Yasgur’s Farm, my buddy decided that he couldn’t risk abandoning his parents’ car at the side of the road, so we drove home. I later joked that this was the moment I decided to become a rock critic and have access to free concert tickets if not free parking.

At Northwestern University in the early-1970s, I was a deejay at WNUR and one of the hosts of an evening program called (with undergraduate irony) “God’s Own Jukebox.” My friend Harry and I would compete to see who could end their show with the most depressing song (“I’ll see your Townes Van Zant’s ‘Waitin’ Around to Die’ and raise you Van Morrison’s ‘Slim Slow Slider.’”). I also became a regular at Laurie’s Records in Evanston buying $2 copies of new releases that had stickers on them that said, “Not for Sale. Promotional Use Only.” It wouldn’t be long before I discovered where these bargains came from. By now, rock criticism, which didn’t much exist at the time of the Beatles arrival, had flowered in magazines (Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Creem), “underground” papers like the Village Voice, and eventually in mainstream daily papers. My first music reviews appeared in the Chicago Reader, the city’s alternative weekly; eighteen months later I was hired by the Chicago Daily News, one of the city’s three major newspapers, each of which had a designated rock critic. On my second day at the paper, I wrote my first story: an obituary of Elvis Presley. Reflecting on the twelve years between the birth of Beatlemania and the death of Elvis, it’s clear that I’d grown up during an especially sweet spot of popular music and at the perfect time to become a rock critic.

When the Chicago Daily News folded in 1977-- it was the first of many afternoon papers to close as people turned to television news for their evening update—I freelanced for numerous outlets, including Rolling Stone. But after an editor from Penthouse asked if I’d like to go to Los Angeles to do a profile of Marvin Gaye, I moved back to my native New York where over the years I freelanced for The New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, and many others. In 1994, after moving to Bearsville, New York, I covered Woodstock ’94 for Rolling Stone. The late Michael Lang, the curly-haired promoter famous for the ’69 festival, jokingly offered to refund my tickets to the original fest. Unlike my bummer trip in 1969, for Woodstock ’94, I could sleep in my own bed, watch Al Roker giving the weather from the festival site in Saugerties, and drive to the big to-do.

Since 1976, the job of the rock critic had changed in many ways. Back in the day, over-night concert reviews were a newspaper staple, which meant frenzied dashes back to the office to flesh out one’s scribbled notes. A decade later, while working at USA Today, I’d file a review of, say, the first night of a Cyndi Lauper tour in Portland, Maine, and the next morning it was seen from coast to coast. It was in the late-‘80s, phoning in a review to the Philadelphia Inquirer of the local stop of Alice Cooper’s “Raise Your Fist and Yell” tour, that my job began to feel a tad ridiculous. During those years, I was  often lucky enough to sell the same music feature to the Inquirer, Newsday, and the Chicago Tribune. But those days waned as budgets tightened, the internet exploded, and freelance writers were increasingly looked upon as “content providers.” Today, concert reviews are rare beyond coverage of the occasional superstar, and jazz and classical music are accorded far less space in the paper. In another revealing change on the arts pages, television critics now review new programs alongside episode recaps of particularly buzz-worthy programs. In the culture biz, coverage is increasingly about what people are talking about at the expense of criticism.

The biggest change, however, is that popular music was no longer at the center of the cultural zeitgeist. The baby boom grew up with AM Top 40 radio that culled hits from the Beatles to Motown, and from the Rolling Stones to James Brown. When FM stations found success catering to the counter-culture rock audience, it confirmed that music was a common denominator among the younger generation. That was pretty much over by the 1980s, with listeners increasingly balkanized between genres, and with rap and hip-hop eventually dominating the pop charts alongside slick dance and pop hits created by multiple writers and producers. Artists that appealed to older rock fans, from Steve Earle and Wilco to Lucinda Williams and the Jayhawks, were dubbed alt-country, which soon evolved in Americana. The rise of Sirius with its many genre-specific stations codified this trend. I originally thought it silly when music business executives complained about losing customers to the lure of video games. But then the digital revolution took center stage, with Napster not only cannibalizing record sales but lending credence to the fact that smart phones, the internet, and social media had become our new common denominator. Meanwhile, many critics migrated to digital platforms like Substack.

As I tip-toed into middle age in the ‘90s, my friend Tom and I would note what we called our “midrock crisis,” which was an increasing inability to appreciate or give-a-hoot about popular hits. It’s not that I couldn’t find new music that appealed to me, but that it was no longer at the top of the pops. That’s why my work increasingly focused on roots music for publications like No Depression.  At the same time, I began playing guitar and singing in my living room with musician friends and eventually formed a blues-rock band called the Comfy Chair. When our harmonica player invited a fiddler friend to join the ensemble, I met Larry Packer, whom I had apparently seen three decades earlier when he was member of Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys and they opened for The Band at the Fillmore East. At our fourth gig, Larry invited a guitarist buddy to sit in and we met Steve Burgh, who looked like Burl Ives and played with the intensity of Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. The next morning, I rifled through my record collection researching the Chair’s new lead guitarist. Turned out that Burgh had played and toured with David Bromberg, written a song with Steve Goodman, and had recorded with Billy Joel, Phoebe Snow, and Willie Nelson. Burgh also produced and played guitar on Steve Forbert’s highly acclaimed debut, Alive on Arrival. In a sense, my two worlds, that of the veteran critic and the fledgling musician, had merged.

The last ten years of my life have been professionally consumed with writing two books about American roots music: Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues) and Americanaland: Where Country & Western Met Rock ‘n’ Roll. The books reflected the music I was playing with the Comfy Chair and my current combo, the Sunburst Brothers. No longer getting free records, I borrowed discs from a critic friend still on promo lists and built a library of classical LPs from a used book store that got a new stock every month. While my listening largely revolved around the subjects of my books, two passions of the past decade made for an odd couple: Taylor Swift and Drive-By Truckers. The Truckers became my midrock touchstone after seeing them in 2003 (while Jason Isbell was still in the band) and recognizing that the hard-rocking group would have been huge in 1975 but, like rock in general, now played to a minority audience. I started to buy tickets for multiple shows whenever the Truckers were in the area.  On my 65th birthday, I drove through a snowstorm to see the band on Long Island and saw them the next night in Manhattan. My first live show as the pandemic eased was a pair of performances by the Truckers at the Brooklyn Bowl. Only the band, it seemed, was happier to be there than their fans.

Taylor Swift was a whole different experience for the aging critic. From her first single, “Tim McGraw,” it was clear that she had a gift for a melodic hook. The old guy in me thought, “By her fifth album, she’ll be doing her version of Joni Mitchell’s Blue.” But Taylor existed in another world, and while I consistently found songs to like on her albums, only a couple (1989 and Lover) rang my album-oriented bell. It was during the pandemic that Swift hit her mature stride with two outstanding collections, Folklore and Evermore. Coincidentally, I’ve also become especially fond of contemporary female artists like Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz, Phoebe Bridgers, and Kasey Musgraves. But it’s not like I only like girls; I’m digging the new Spoon album and, cancelled or not, still like Ryan Adams, who recorded his own full-length tribute to Taylor’s 1989. I dutifully check new releases each week on Spotify where I recognize increasingly fewer artists that I know and hardly any collections that draw me back for repeated visits. Last night, I listened to Wet Leg while reading a review of its debut in the New Yorker. Yeah, I get it, brittle new wave ennui, but at this point of my life, having lived through the actual birth of punk and new wave, I don’t anticipate returning for too many streams. Color me too old to care about even pretending to be hip.

If I turned 70 and played golf instead of tennis, I’d already be in the middle of the back nine. After a life immersed in the pop hits of the day and then the roots of that music, there’s no point in living just in the here and now.  Been there, done that, and time is tight. I recently read a lacerating sentence about culture brokers in Dawn Powell’s The Locusts Have No King. “Frederick listened,” wrote Powell, “meditating on the curious way newspaper men, despite their apprenticeship in realities, end up convinced by their own romantic inventions, respectful of the celebrities their own lies created, teary over sob-stories they had made up themselves, doffing their plumes reverently to whatever powers had kept them down.” I’ve been out of the rock critic game for a while now, but music still pulses through my life; my band’s got a gig next week, I’m presenting a paper at the Bob Dylan Institute in Tulsa in June and just bought tickets to see the Truckers (not that I had to run to the box office) in August.    



7 responses
I am glad you warmed up to memoirs. I found this little memoir essay highly interested, seeing your Chicago years, in the context of the remainder of your life, before and after. When I reached 70, that was the first time I felt I was old. Did not happen with 60, but 70, jeez. More and more people I know around my age (77) are dying. Anyway, I feel we are both handling old age the same way, keeping active in doing what we already were doing our pre-retirement years, with a little variations. You added playing music, along with listening to and writing about music. The two books you wrote is most impressive, because most people in retirement--simply stop whatever they were doing, and half of them are helpless not knowing what to do. Nice essay, and don't apologize for writing reflections on your life.
I’ll see your Larry Packer and Steve Burgh and I’ll raise you one Eddie Diehl and Paul Simon at Matt Umanov’s 35 Bedford Street back room 🏄‍♂️
I'm glad you took the time to write this. Filled in some holes for me and reminded me of some of the shows you invited me as your guest (sometimes on very short notice.) Remarkable the role music has played in your life.
Your books are truly downhome and awesome I am 71 and turned back at Woodstock and saw bb open for Led Zeppelin at central park you nailed everything right on the money could you possibly write a book on Paul butterfield or Sonny boy 2 or Otis rush? You a truly a great writer thank you I hope to see a new book soon how about a bio on Otis spann? RAVE ON MY BLUES BROTHER WILLIE STRANDBERG
Timely & insightful
Jamaica peeps! HI there- Greetings from NW PA. I hope your trip ended a bit better than ours did. If you recall we were headed to the mountains for a 2 night stay at Zimbali. We only made it one night. The dinner was ok..but nothing like we remember from 2019. The stay was not what we expected at all. We were hoping that you did not go to lunch there on that Thursday 5/5 as we left at 10 am that morning. The beds were awful. We did not enjoy the food. Our companion couple even liked it less than us, so we made the executive decision to leave early. We booked a one night stay in Montego Bay at a C class all-inclusive. LOL...yes, it was 1000 times better than where we were! We made it home by the skin of our teeth with a connection in Charlotte that was scheduled a bit too close. All that being said, we wanted to mention that you two were the highlight of our trip and we enjoyed our conversations and jam session. Tensing Pen was great...that we would most definitely return to..Zimbali not so much. Mark and I hope your return flight was uneventful and that if you're ever in our neck of the woods near Chautauqua NY please look us up! Fondly- Mark Zimmer Karen Bergamasco
1 visitor upvoted this post.