"I don’t mean to be the final word on anything. I just mean to get the conversation started."
Jim DeRogatis is a busy man. When he’s not churning out rock criticism for the Chicago Sun-Times or recording his public radio show Sound Opinions (the world’s only rock ‘n’ roll talk show), he’s flying down to Texas for a week to cover SXSW or putting together pieces for a full-length book. On the other hand, the dude’s got the coolest job on the planet: he tags along with rock stars and goes to shows for free. I called up Jim at his Chicago home Thursday to ask him some of the random questions that have come up in the years that I’ve been a fan; basically, I set out to interview the interviewer, and though I waited months to find a gap in his tight schedule, I found the man to be soundly opinionated.
Hey! You answered on the first ring there. How about that? How you doing?
Great, Jim. I’m going to ask you all about your career as a rock writer. First off, coming right out of college, how difficult was it for you to get started with that business? Well, I was writing about music for free for 10 years before I was ever paid to do it. It was very difficult to break into it. When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan, to break into writing for the Village Voice or the New York Rocker or Musician Magazine, it was impossible. They didn’t wanna have a snotty, you know, fat nerd from Jersey writing about how great Husker Du was. Cuz there were Bruce Springsteen records to write about. So I did what everybody did in the indie-rock-80’s: I did a fanzine. I put out my own fanzine, I wrote for other fanzines, and today, we would just do a web blog. But in those days you would go to Kinko’s in the middle of the night when your friend was working, run off 500 copies on his keycard and then go to the clubs and hand ‘em out.
What was your zine called?Reasons for Living. It was nothing if not absurdly optimistic, and passionate about music.
And now you’re here, 2009, Chicago Sun Times. Can you explain your job description in your own words? Well in a lot of ways it’s exactly what the political reporter does, who covers City Hall for the newspaper. The religion reporter covers that beat, the business reporter covers that one, and I, you know, cover popular music… which is a wide realm of everything from Eminem to Tortoise.
So then do you go by a specific quota? Or do you just get it as it comes, generally? Well you’re a news reporter first and foremost. You know, chilling out after a couple of beers at a barbecue on Sunday before Memorial Day and word comes in around 7 o’clock that Jay Bennett of Wilco is dead, and you drop everything and you go. A couple years ago, Christmas Day, 10 o’clock in the morning, James Brown is dead… [Plus] I have a column every Friday which is about a show I’m interested in that weekend; there’s record reviews every Sunday and features for Sunday, news stories during the weekdays, concert reviews depending. In the middle of February when nobody’s on tour it’s pretty quiet, so there might be one a week or one every other week. In summer when it’s really busy there might be 3, 4 a week.
Then you gotta keep up with Sound Opinions. Yeah, well Sound Opinions is just…Greg [Kot – the Chicago Tribune rock critic] and I do our jobs, and then we’re eager to go out after that and talk about it! [Laughs.] I don’t think we’d be able to be as good on the radio if we weren’t working 80 hours a week for the newspaper. But it’s all kind of the same thing, and work is relative when you’re doing something you love. Like I said, I did it for 10 years for free. If I were fired from the Sun-Times tomorrow, then I’d go get a job at Kinko’s and do a fanzine or some variation of it again for free. A blog. Except I wouldn’t have to go see fucking Britney Spears if I didn’t want to. Which would be fine by me.
Do you ever get pissed off reading other people’s reviews? I mean, I do, and I’m relatively new… I don’t get pissed off, I mean even if there’s something that I really really love. Whether you’re talking about a book – I love Jack Kerouac, he’s one of my favorite writers, but the most meaningful reviews I’ve read have been the ones that have torn him apart. “This isn’t writing, this is typing.” Because when I read a negative review of something I love, I’m arguing in my head with that writer, and I’m also trying to formulate even more strongly why I love this. And I think that people who read reviews to confirm their own groovy opinions – I mean, that’s absolutely pointless. You can be the biggest Eminem fan in the world, [but when] I wrote what I thought was a pretty thoughtful and insightful negative review of his [new] album, if you can read that and rebut what it is that makes him so talented and why rapping about goofing on Christopher Reeve when the guy’s been dead for five or six years isn’t a waste of time, I’d like to hear it. I think that all music fans are passionate, and they play stuff for each other that they love – “You gotta hear this!” They argue with each other about stuff that they bought that they thought was a piece of crap, and that’s how we all interact with music. And I’m just doing it in print. I don’t mean to be the final word on anything. I just mean to get the conversation started.
I think that’s why Kill Your Idols, a collection of a essays by modern critics tearing apart the supposed ‘classics’ that they can’t actually stand, which you edited, was such a good read. Yeah, that was kind of the point of the book. I mean who needs another positive review of Sgt. Peppers [the album DeRogatis attacked], or any of those albums? We’ve read those.
Well what’s another album or artist that everyone’s always telling you to like, but – Oh I hate Bruce Springsteen. I think he’s just corny as shit and I have no use for him.
Yeah, that is one that’s always shoved in your face, especially by Rolling Stone. Yep.
Okay, the other side of that question: what’s something that everybody hates, that you’re always defending? Got one of those? You know, I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures. If you like it, and it brings you pleasure, and you can say why, then…I mean, I love ABBA. I think a lot of people dismiss ABBA. I love Jethro Tull, and I can defend Jethro Tull – up to, and including, Heavy Horses. They haven’t been good since ’78 or ’79, but the same is true of the fucking Rolling Stones. And yet people defend the Rolling Stones but nobody defends Jethro Tull!
The ‘80’s ruined a lot of bands. Like Rush, you know. I thought Rush was pretty great up through like, Moving Pictures. When Geddy stopped singing with the helium voice, then it went downhill.
This is the last one, and it’s just as random. Looking back through all of it, who was your toughest interview? There’s a lot of interviews where the people just aren’t [into it]. The art is much better than the person you’re talking to. I mean Lou Reed is a surly, nasty son of a bitch, which is kind of a disappointment if you really love Lou Reed. But you learn early on to separate the art and the artist. Sometimes wonderful people make pretty boring art, and other times, miserable motherfuckers make great art. And those two things really don’t have much to do with each other.
How long do you usually spend on an interview? If you’re just doing a 700-word weekend preview of a band coming to town – I just talked to Eddie Argos of Art Brut, whose gonna be here [in Chicago] for five days next week at Schubas – we spent like half an hour on the phone. But yeah for something like the Flaming Lips when I’ve written about them for SPIN, just a magazine article, 2 or 3 days. For the book, [Jim’s book Staring At Sound, a full-length book about the Lips] much longer.
Alright Jim, that’s all I got for you. I appreciate you taking your time out. Yeah, no problem! Sorry it took a while to get it together.