Picking the easy targets since 1993
With Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot
It was supposed to be one of those interviews where I, an aspiring music journalist, had an epiphany. Instead, with the critical eyes of Chicago Tribune music critic, Greg Kot, and Chicago Sun-Times music critic, Jim Derogatis, peering at me, I found myself stumbling for questions.
It was a Tuesday night, the night of "Sound Opinions," the pair's banter-filled music talk show—kind of like sports radio for rockers—now in its fifth year on Chicago's 93.1 WXRT radio station. I was cordially invited to the station by Derogatis, who failed to deliver the ideal greeting I had imagined minutes prior to my arrival.
I stepped into the XRT studio. Kot was running late. Derogatis acknowledged me as if his face was attached by a rubber band to the computer screen he was working in front of. (I swear there had to be; his face flicked to me and back just too fast.) I told him I would walk around the station and look at the gold and silver albums along WXRT's walls until they were ready for me.
Of all the record awards on the walls, Journey had sold the most—they beat Hootie and the Blowfish and Sheryl Crow. I had come to like Journey in the last few years. Maybe it was out of boredom. Maybe it was my reaction to years spent in the throws of darker music. I couldn't tell you. Regardless, Journey is in my stammering-drunk listening file, but they are catchy. I came back to learn Derogatis hated them.
What do you ask two journalism professionals who both have "Rolling Stone Writer" on their resumés? I don't know. I hate Rolling Stone, but I also don't know what they like about Rolling Stone. I generally know what they hate about it. Kot arrives just as somewhat-OK questions start brewing in my head.
They are preparing the night's show. The topic is, essentially, whether bands can go too far with their shock value stunts, language, and image. As they talk, I wonder to myself why I didn't bring some albums I feel are more shocking than anything they brought—as if they probably haven't heard them anyway. I chime in some suggestions confidently, but am quickly quieted by Derogatis, who then shifts to hospitality by inviting me to sit in on the night's event.
In the end, I have twenty lousy minutes for the interview, complete with an understandably interested intern hanging out at the doorway in my peripheral. The interview was similar to a break-up scene in a movie: the girl running to the train giving the guy a few seconds to repair four years of crap in one minute. "Oh well, I guess this is my sample of the big time, so to speak," I think to myself. I'd better try to come out of here with a little bit of the flavor.
Reglar Wiglar: How did you get this show?
Jim Derogatis: Well, we've been doing this for a little more than four years at this point. And I had done—
Greg Kot: It's actually our fifth year.
JD: '99, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003. . . five years.
JD: I had been doing a version of this show earlier, years ago, with Bill Wyman, who used to write for The Reader—Peter Margasak's job—and Greg did some radio for awhile at The Loop. And then I had left to go to New York to work at Rolling Stone, and when I came back I said, Greg, do you want to do this show together and do it right this time? And he said, sure.
RW: Where were you doing (the show) before? Was it on XRT?
JD: I was on Q101. I was on The Loop, then I was on Q101.
RW: And what did the earlier shows touch on? Was it more popular music or—
JD: Ah, it has always been the same shit (laughing). It has been everything we're interested in. We talk about, you know—I mean, listen to what we were just going through, everything from Britney to Death In June. We pretty much cover the waterfront.
RW: Another thing is, being critics, being some of the biggest critics—
JD: You mean in size or ego?
RW: In ego and . . . whatever (laughing). What has been one of the most difficult things, as far as interpersonally, with bands and you? People who you piss off, people who you don't want to get too close to. . .
JD: Well, we talk about this all the time. Last week I played this stupid Ryan Adams voicemail message. I mean we get that all the time.
RW: What did he say on it?
JD: Oh, you know, I'm an old man, I should get out of the way, I can't appreciate his genius. It's on the web actually. (Sarcastically) Yeah, I always do it, every time he comes to town.
GK: Yeah, I mean, it happens. I mean, we had the head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences hang up on us in the middle of a phone conversation because we were asking questions about what everybody else was asking about. You know, about his scandals.
RW: Hardballs or whatever?
GK: Yeah, and Billy Corgan and Jim have been rivals and friends and rivals again over the years, and Corgan came on the show—the thing is, it was right on the table. We didn't ignore (the press/artist relation) topic. We devoted the whole show to Billy Corgan and the press. So we just look people straight in the eye and, (say) we're here to level with you.
RW: Who's one of your biggest rivals?
JD: If you do this for any time, Ben, you have to realize that you're not writing about music to become anybody's friend. Even bands with whom we are friendly, you know, Greg has written a book about Wilco. There's going to be stuff in there about Wilco that they're not going to like, because he's relaying all sides of the story. I've written a lot about the Flaming Lips. There have been criticisms of the Lips' I've had. Your loyalty has to be to the reader, or the listener if it's a radio show. Not to be on anybody's good side.
RW: Yeah, so you've been in some compromising positions maybe. Let's say you see them at a show.
GK: I'm not saying compromising as much as maybe uncomfortable—uncomfortable positions. I always believe that every word I wrote, you should be able to recite it to somebody to their face. You should be able to stand behind every word that you wrote and be able to tell that person. And, you know, we've had those kind of confrontations.
JD: You know, listen, when I was an investigative reporter, I put a councilmen in jail for fraud, you know, on a series of articles I wrote. Then I'd run into his wife and their two fuckin' kids at the Shop-Rite supermarket. That's uncomfortable. Bryan Adams, seeing me in a crowd, being pissed off that I, you know—I mean that's nothing. When you have to run into a woman and she slams your shopping cart because you put her husband in jail, that's a bummer.
RW: Yeah, I screwed a sheriff in a (political) race, down at my internship. So is there such thing as being cynical, I mean, critical to the point of being cynical? And how do you define that line—or crossing that line where you're taking it more like a personal thing? Like, let's say, who do you hate right now, what bands? Not personally, but their music, you think they're overrated.
GK: Oh, there are lots of bands that I have just no use for. Some of the most popular bands in America I absolutely loathe, but in terms of their music. But you know, I try not to make it personal. You try to be fair. If you tell somebody they suck, you better be addressing their music. I get way more personal attacks on me than I do on bands, (laughs) I would say that.
RW: Well, with you, Jim—I was reading (responses on your Bryan Adams criticism) and it was pretty rough. What's even more annoying is that you can tell the people really didn't really read it in detail.
JD: No, or they don't know where they're coming from.
GK: That just comes with the territory, people are going to be upset with you. But, I don't know any other critics in the country who have an open phone line to every one of their readers. You know, saying, "Come on the phone line, in the course of two hours every week and tell us exactly what you feel." But we've had callers on this show that tell us "You suck" or "I don't like what you write." It's about discourse and dialog—that is what we're trying to do.
JD: Either that or we're sadomasochists.
RW: What do you think about independent music as opposed to major label music? Do you think you're concentrating more—I think that you guys seem to concentrate more on major label music than you do independent music.
JD: I don't know, if you look at our top ten list this year, it's pretty evenly divided. I don't think that matters. I think that good music is good music. It's not inherently better because it's on an indy and it's not necessarily evil if it's on Sony BMG, although the chances are pretty good.
RW: Do you guys think that the ability for almost anybody to put out an album now has weakened the whole music scene? Do you think it's flooded? In my opinion, it seemed like after the whole grunge thing it seemed that everyone saw the DIY type of thing and thought, "Hey mom and dad can buy me a guitar and I'm going to be something."
GK: The good thing is that it has made our jobs even more essential than they already were. (laughing).
RW: Keeping it clean? Cleaning house?
GK: Well, I mean, people are bewildered by all the stuff that's out there. I'm frequently bewildered by all the stuff that's out there. But it just shows that you need, I mean, people are going to rely on some other person to sort of wade through it for them and say, hey, some of this stuff you're not hearing on traditional outlets. I mean, the fact that MTV and commercial radio can be completely useless as far as breaking anything that's important to new music—and the fact that there's more music than ever being made—I mean, figure it out.
RW: Do you think that's all fostering mediocrity in music, or do you think you just have to dig deeper?
GK: I think it's fostering a lot of great music. I just think there's more of it and it's harder to find. Twenty years ago, I think you could sort of throw your arms around it and say, I've got a handle on it. Now, I think, it's outside the borders of the United States. Some of the greatest rock and roll is being made outside the borders of the U.S.
RW:I don't know what to call it, but it's that music that has the guy who will sing with a lumberjack voice. You know, like Creed and all those other bands that are considered rock right now. Mainstream radio considers that rock, so do you consider that rock, or just soft pop, or what? All those (bands) like Saliva, Nickelback. . .
JD: They're all crap pretty much.
RW: Yeah. But you know, as other generations leave and kids grow up with that, do you think it's just going to drive rock into the ground?
GK: You look at when the Beatles and the Stones were coming up, I mean, Paul Anka was having hits, Herman's Hermits, I mean, there's always crap. You know, Jerry and the Pacemakers, Chad and Jeremy, you know, those were Liverpool bands too. Then the Beatles came out. Every year it's like a cesspool of bad music. The cream will rise to the top. Twenty years from now they'll look back on this year and they'll figure it out. They'll know what the good stuff was.
RW: Any advice for wanna-be rock critics? I mean, did you work your way up from the mailroom?
GK: Yeah, I think we both started as zine writers. You know, which would have been what you're doing.
JD: I wrote about music for ten years before I ever made a dime. So you have nine and a half years to go, buddy.
RW: (laughing) Not true, I've been doing it for three.
JD: There's three dozen of these jobs in America and that's not a good batting average. Greg and I only nominally write about music. What we're really writing about, I mean, you know, when I do this (Death In June) story it brings up censorship and free speech. You write about Elliot Smith's obituary, you're talking about mental crisis and drug addiction. Music is just the common thread in most of these stories that we're writing.
RW: Good insight guys. I hope our readers are able to get a better perspective on critics from this.
Books by Jim Derogatis
Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic (Broadway Books)
Books by Gret Kot
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