It’s been a long time since I’ve interviewed anybody for this site, but I thought an interview might be a fun way to shake off some of the Covid-19 doldrums, which I’m sure were amplified by the East Coast winter. Who better to get back into interviews with than Big Takeover publisher/writer Jack Rabid? I’ve been reading The Big Takeover since 1998, and have found it a consistently vital source of interviews, reviews, ideas, and musical history. It’s also helped inform my style of writing about music – especially the idea that you could just write about whatever music interests you, without any regard for genre constraints or popular consensus. We spoke over Zoom for about ninety minutes, and Jack was, as was expected after so many years of reading The Big Takeover, personable, passionate, and incredibly knowledgeable. In fact, while it may have started out as a formal interview, by the end it felt more like two music fans plying each other with an array of band names, song titles, and concert stories. Hopefully you enjoy it, and make sure to check out The Big Takeover if you haven’t already. You can purchase it over at shop.bigtakeover.com. It’s well worth the modest cover price.
Midnight To Six: So I actually spoke with you once before for a few minutes at a Doves show at the Bowery Ballroom in 2001. I’d had quite a few drinks when I saw you, and said to my friend “Hey, it’s the guy from The Big Takeover. Let’s go talk to him.”
Jack Rabid: You got off easy if it was only a few minutes. I hope I wasn’t too big a jerk!
MTS: Not at all. I kind of stumbled away. I think you wanted to talk more.
JR: I like meeting people with the same taste as me.
MTS: That brings me to my first real question – How are you holding up without going to concerts?
JR: Not so well. My last gig was Sloan at The Bowery Ballroom. It’s been over a year now. I’ve probably gone a month without a concert before when I was out here, but even out here we usually go to Seattle. I’ve seen many a gig in Seattle. My proviso has been I’ve never gone to a club or a certain venue. I go based on the band. I remember going to the Marquee when I was in London just to go there. We wandered in like tourists, paid $3 to get in and saw some band, and they were bloody awful! I’m spoiled because I know a fair amount about music because I’ve been following it for so long, so there’s often bands I’ve heard of. Or back in those days before the internet I’d comes across so many of them that I’d have a good idea of who might be worth seeing when I was in London. So, even though I was standing where The Who and The Jam played, I’m not feeling it.
MTS: It wasn’t the same caliber.
JR: Yeah. It was hallowed ground, though. Even going to The Cavern Club in Liverpool, even though it’s a recreation twenty feet away, you just try to imagine some great band playing there, like The Beatles in 1961. Some drunk up there playing a bad version of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” which is what me and my four-year old son saw the last time we were there…it’s really not the same thing. The Hollies did a residency there in 1962…”I’d like to get in a time machine and come back here.”
MTS: Even just to get away from the band you were seeing!
JR: I guess somebody could go to CBGBs and see some terrible band play and still understand they were in a very important place in the world back when it still existed. I saw over 200 gigs there, and played there on twenty-eight occasions, so for me, even having missed out on Richard Hell and The Voidoids, The Ramones, and The Talking Heads all playing there, I still was part of a living club. Even into the ’90s, seeing a band like Swervedriver rip CBGBs up, it was like seeing Patti Smith and Television. I saw those people in theaters instead. I saw The Talking Heads in 1978 and they were already playing The Beacon Theater. They had two albums out and they were a big deal. They could sell 3,000 tickets by then.
MTS: I thought they got big around the time of Fear of Music
JR: No, they sold out the place. The next time I saw them was with the B-52s at Central Park, for like $3 in the summer of ’79. It was fun being 17 back then, man! The Ramones you could see in small clubs outside the city. They’d play The Palladium in the city but then they’d play The Showplace in Dover or My Father’s Place in Roslyn. I tried to see them in West Orange when I was seventeen. All my friends got in with their fake IDs but for some reason they didn’t take mine so I got stuck in the back parking lot just listening to the gig through the back wall for an hour and a half! I did see them six or seven times from ’79-’80, but this was the one that got away! Crazy memories.
MTS: Speaking of which, I wanted to talk to you about the magazine’s early days. It started out in that period when punk was becoming hardcore.
JR: Even before that. We started in May of ’80…the same month my band Even Worse played our first gig with The Stimulators at Tier 3. So, we had no idea that hardcore was coming, and unfortunately it was, because I would have liked punk rock to last another three or four years before going down the tubes like that.
MTS: That’s exactly what I wanted to ask about. It sounds like you were there for that transformation, and then when hardcore arrived you got disillusioned pretty quickly.
JR: As would any intelligent human being that had been part of that scene. A lot of the new hardcores had never experienced the punk rock scene, so I can’t blame them. I don’t want to be an elitist and a jerk about it, but we bequeathed them a scene, just as I was bequeathed a scene. Having blundered into this scene with my friends, we were glad to keep it going with the same ideals. I loved a lot of the early hardcore bands, but I noticed they brought in a much younger audience. When we were the young people, we were expected to act like the twenty-six year-olds who were running that scene. We were really well versed. We were buying all the records; we knew all the songs. When we’d meet the new punks we’d have something to say other than (flicks lips) “bwub-bwub-bwub.” Sometimes I’d turn them on to stuff and sometimes they’d turn me on to stuff, and my knowledge just tripled overnight meeting some of the Manhattan punk rockers like Nick Marden. He had records by bands I’d never heard of like The Viletones, Legionnaire’s Disease, and The Dils. I was just hearing about The Dils because I saw a picture of them in Rock Scene Magazine, and was like “Wow, it seems like there’s a lotta stuff happening on the West Coast” and suddenly I’m buying Slash and Search and Destroy magazine, and within a month I’m an expert!
MTS: You were going down the rabbit hole.
JR: But to me it was all a part of something bigger, because Search and Destroy was covering William Burroughs and JG Ballard, Devo, Captain Beefheart. To me it was a glorious mosaic of outsider art and outsider thinking. It was a giant mind-bomb and I think hardcore lost a lot of that. It wasn’t necessarily all their fault because they were younger, but they wanted everything to be on their level instead of coming up to the older people’s level like my friends and I were trying to do. We were drinking with Johnny Thunders for God’s sakes! We weren’t going to bore him!
MTS: Did you notice this happening over time or was there one day when you were at a concert and said “this isn’t for me anymore”?
JR: Like everything, it was an evolution. A lot of the original hardcores were slightly older. Like Keith Morris is my favorite example of that. I remember going to a Squeeze gig with Keith Morris in 1981, and thinking that by that time it was becoming less usual that he and I would want to see a Squeeze gig, while all his fans would be like “That’s so wimpy.”
MTS: There was a dividing line.
JR: Hardcore had just become “Harder, harder! Faster, faster!”, and the slam-dancing thing started and that just made it worse. A lot of the intellectual level and the social level of it declined for people like me, and a lot of ladies left the scene which made it a super bummer for me, being heterosexual and nineteen. There were still some hardcore women, but a lot of them were very masculine and were going out in the mosh-pit where they would get “bruises as big as dinner plates,” to quote the Smiths. I didn’t see the point of that. I never slam-danced. My first editorial in The Big Takeover was an anti-slam dancing one, when it appeared in NYC for the first time in 1981. I had seen it in Los Angeles, because my parents moved to Santa Barbara in 1980 and I had been following the West Coast magazines, so I was really excited to get out there and see those bands. Then I started reading things in Damage magazine talking about slam-dancing, riots, and cops beating up punk rockers, and I was like “Wow we don’t have that problem on the East Coast.” It was a very different scene very quickly there and when the Decline of Western Civilization came out it was exponentially sped up. I wish Penelope Spheeris had done her movie a year earlier and chronicled the 1978 scene instead of the 1979 scene because that’s when people like Vale from Search and Destroy and Penelope Houston from The Avengers got disillusioned and left. They took all their creative energy, all their intellectual energy, knowledge, and experience with them and gave it to some other venue. For me it died more gradually. I really liked Minor Threat, and The Bad Brains were the hottest band I’d ever seen in my life. They still are.
MTS: Not a week goes by where I don’t watch a clip from their Live at CBGB’s ’82 DVD.
JR: In my view they were in decline by then! If before they were an 11 on a scale of 1-10, by that point they were a 10.2! I saw them be much better. 1980-81 was their peak as a live act before a lot of the pot smoking began to take its toll, as you would expect from the level of pot smoking they did. I saw The Bad Brains eighty times, mostly from 1979-1983 and a few times after that, including some of those reunion gigs they did.
MTS: I saw them at Irving Plaza on that tour where they were calling themselves Soul Brains. I was really pumped up by the idea of seeing this almost mythic band, but it wasn’t the same. The band still sounds great, but…
JR: The musicianship level was still there, even getting on in years. But HR was a gigantic part of what they did and he was not mentally the same. Fortunately you have that 1979 film in their punk rock, pre-rasta days. I’ve watched that like 100 times because for me it’s like looking at pictures of yourself as a kid. That’s what I was doing. I even see people in the audience that I knew, spent time with, went out drinking with, would visit their homes, and it’s pleasant for me because we were really excited. Let’s face it, we were really excited, and this is what punk rock offered people in Los Angeles, Vancouver, New York, Boston, DC, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, Sydney, London, and Manchester – an endless smorgasbord of bands to see and things to do. To get back to your question about what I miss about concerts is that besides seeing a great band, it’s a party. The best parties have great music, and everybody’s drinking and having a great time. Then imagine that party with your favorite band playing. My favorite concerts have been like that. Great musicians playing my favorite songs, and great people to talk to. It’s strange seeing a gig out of town where I don’t know everybody. If I’ve gone myself I keep looking for someone I know. Feels strange. I saw a Fire Theft gig in Philadelphia at the Theater of Living Arts because I was there to visit my family. I just kept wandering around the venue looking for someone to talk to but I couldn’t find anybody. Then the band came on and I felt better. My concentration was stuck entirely on the stage.
MTS: When did the magazine switch from being a punk fanzine to something more sustainable where you realized “I’m going to be a magazine guy. That’s my thing.”
JR: It wasn’t any great plan. It just sort of happened. The first twenty-two issues were just stapled and Xeroxed, so it was just a fanzine. But it was an accident in the first place because it was my best friend Dave Stein’s idea in 1980, and it was commensurate with the attitude of that scene. Everybody was doing something. We were in it for two years angling to find some band we could be in, or to manage, or take pictures, or writing about stuff. Even people who weren’t involved in the scene were sculptors, filmmakers, painters…it was like the most creative art scene I’d ever seen. We were in high school which kind of put the kibosh on a lot of grand plans. We still had homework and exams, but in whatever spare time we had we were just trying to take part in some way other than just going to gigs. And that’s why the band and the magazine started the same month. It was like sparks, or when you put fresh wood on a fire that’s dying. We were inevitably going to get further involved. Dave wanted to do a fanzine about David Johansen. I don’t know why. We were big New York Dolls fans but they had been gone for five years by then and I didn’t really like “Funky But Chic.” At the time he was getting some airplay too, with an Animals medley that I thought was totally pointless, at the age of eighteen and being a big Animals fan. So I thought “David Johansen doesn’t need a fanzine about him; but what about The Stimulators, The Bad Brains, The Mad, and all these people we were hanging out with? They could use a little help, and from there we could write about other bands that were happening too.” He liked the idea and so he helped me write the first issue, or more to the point, I helped him, and then that was it for his involvement. It was one page and we didn’t even know what we were doing. We didn’t even think of putting something on the other side of the page.
MTS: It must have been a big revelation to flip it over and realize there was a whole other side to work on!
JR: Yeah! I’d never even heard of a copy shop. We went to a local library and put a dime in the machine, and the thing would take forty seconds to make one copy. And it would make a horrible rumbling sound for that forty seconds and you would see the light moving back and forth. People don’t understand the technology and what it was like back then. We would show up with a roll of dimes, and a line would start to form behind us. But again, because we pre-dated hardcore we were just interested in talking about Siouxsie and The Banshees, Gang Of Four, and The Cramps. That was our idea of punk. It was everything from The Weirdos, The Avengers, The Ramones, and Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, to much more arty stuff. So to me when hardcore came along it was just another branch of punk, so I covered it along with the rest of what I thought was punk. But it completely subsumed the rest of the audience. Like the people who had been into punk weren’t interested in Minor Threat, Youth Brigade, Circle Jerks, or those bands. It was just too juvenile for them I guess. I didn’t think it was juvenile at all, in fact I thought those records were fantastic. But to me it was a branch (of punk) and that branch detached itself too fast. I kept covering it for a few years along with the rest of what I thought was punk, and then I got disillusioned, threw up my hands and said “This is just a kiddie junior high school scene”…and all they thought about was “their scene”. Everything they talked about was “the scene” but punk rock to me reflects the wider world and those people were way too parochial for my liking. So almost overnight I started working in references to bands like Echo and The Bunnymen, Simple Minds, Oh-Ok, and Pylon. I made that more my focus and I put the hardcore thing on the backburner, so it was a switch in emphasis. I still covered bands like The Effigies, The Descendants, Black Market Baby, Flipper, Circle Jerks, and Black Flag because I thought those bands were great, but I didn’t like a lot of the new hardcore bands at all. Instead I’d cover Salem 66 and The Replacements. I went crazy over The Replacements and Husker Du, not realizing someday they’d become these really big bands. They were just playing for 100 disinterested hardcores the first time I saw them, and DJ’d their gigs.
MTS: Yeah, I saw The Replacements at Forest Hills Stadium.
JR: Oh yeah, I was at that gig. One of the best Replacements shows I ever saw!
MTS: I loved it, and I was thinking how amazing it was that they didn’t have a big fanbase until maybe the end of their initial run, and if you had told someone in 1984 that The Replacements would be playing a stadium that holds 5-6,000 people while Culture Club probably couldn’t fill a place that big, they’d probably think you were insane! It’s amazing how things change over time.
JR: Try explaining the internet and the explosion of free music in 1984. I was explaining to my son’s friends who are thirteen that all the music we listened to we bought ourselves. Our explorations were completely haphazard. Every fanzine or magazine we could get our hands on we would read like The Dead Sea Scrolls, plumbing for bands and records we hadn’t heard of, then we would go to record stores and ask if they had them and maybe they would play them for us, and they would do it because they knew we were good customers and weren’t wasting their time. Now you can spend all day on the internet hunting and pecking and they even suggest bands from their stupid algorithms that are usually not what you’re looking for at all. Our fanzine was part of a global or national network of people who would put together ten or twenty pages and staple them, and just write about stuff that wasn’t covered in the mainstream press. It wasn’t in Rolling Stone, or Spin when that came around. It was like a secret network. I go back over my old issues now from the ’80s and I barely remember a lot of those bands!
MTS: “Who was this band I was super passionate about?”
JR: The ones I was passionate about I remember. I always tried to talk about new bands I like, but a lot of them never went anywhere. They never progressed past a single or an EP. They were totally lost to history. It doesn’t mean they weren’t great. I’m always asked about bands like R.E.M., Husker Du and The Replacements that I saw when they were nobodies, but it’s because they became popular. For me there were a hundred bands I liked as much back then and nobody’s asked me about them since. A perfect example is The Libertines from Cincinnati in the mid-’80s. It’s hard to find information on them now because of the English Libertines. We had them play The Big Takeover’s 30th anniversary party in 2010. I even flew to Cincinnati a few years earlier to see them. I don’t think anyone else flew in to see them except my friend who read about them in The Big Takeover. But I’ve been glad that I have a radio show and a magazine to expose them to people to this day and just how frickin’ brilliant they were. Nobody ever asked me about the Libertines and (their singer) Walter Hodge. Walter Hodge was every bit as good as Paul Westerberg, as someone who knew Paul and admires him tremendously. Same thing with The Nils as a great example. They used to stay at my house all the time. They’re like a Montreal legend, but the average person is like “Who?”. We had them on the cover in 1986 for God’s sakes. I got them a record deal that turned out to be the worst thing that ever happened to them, but without it they wouldn’t have made their one and only album.
MTS: So I was thinking about this recently – is the Big Takeover the last punk magazine standing from that era?
JR: I don’t know. Probably.
MTS: Now that Maximum Rock N Roll isn’t around anymore…
JR: I had a column in their first twelve issues called Rabid’s Ramblings. By ’83 because I was so disillusioned, when they offered me an editorial slot I said I’d only take it if they allowed me to rip on hardcore. I thought they’d say no. All of my columns would be about how horrible this is and how everyone is blowing it. They said, “We’re open-minded to that. We’ve read your magazine, and maybe it would be good to have a contrarian voice.” I was probably the least popular journalist in the history of the magazine! In part because I was telling some heavy truths that they didn’t want to read. They were like Republicans these days. They didn’t want to self-criticize. At one point I had to get bodyguards, who were my friends in The Nihilistics, because every skinhead in New York City wanted to beat the living crap out of me. That was an interesting one. There was a skinhead kid who got murdered by some heavy metal dudes. It’s been a long time since I thought about this. I said “Yes, this is a horrible tragedy. This kid was killed because of his clothes. He was targeted. But maybe some of the hardcores that were going around gay-bashing should see that it’s the same thing.” Because some of them were getting their pictures in gay magazines saying “Look out for these punks because they’ve been beating up gays.” Somehow these lunkheads got it into their head that I had desecrated the memory of their fallen comrade. So I couldn’t go to gigs, and they would be waiting outside my front door. It was no joke. Some days I just didn’t go out. Unless you’re Rambo or something, it’s pretty hard to beat up seven people waiting to show you what hospitalization looks like. The Nihilistics said “We don’t respect that. If you want to go to a gig, you just call us up and we’ll stand next to you.” So I went to a few gigs like that. Yay Mike! Yay Ron! Yay Chris!
MTS: You probably saw some good shows thanks to them!
JR: Yeah, thanks to them! Otherwise I would have missed them. But there would be people glaring at me! It’s like the Jello Biafra thing, where somebody broke his leg though nobody knows why or who. Though in my case somebody probably would have known why and who. So, that was bad! My last column was about how Maximum Rock n Roll was itself a huge part of the problem.
MTS: Not a coincidence that it was your last column…
JR: I warned them ahead. I said, “You’re part of the problem and I’m going to say so. I understand if you don’t want to print it.” Both Jeff Bale and Tim Yohannon wrote rebuttals disagreeing with me. Then six or seven years later Jeff Bale’s final column was titled, “Jack Rabid Was Right.” I just saw it before they did. I think Tim Yohannon went to his grave never seeing it.
MTS: Some people never do.
JR: Yeah, I had a different idea of what music was supposed to accomplish than they did. I was perfectly happy for political comment but it wouldn’t allow me to excuse inexcusable behavior and rote thuggery. So by ’83 The Big Takeover was putting R.E.M. on the cover, and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. I’d still do Naked Raygun and bands like that. I went to see Rank n File (ex-Dils and ex-Nuns members) at the Lone Star Cafe, this country bar. I had a great time and then I walked over to CBGBs and saw a Kraut gig. Kraut were frickin’ amazing and the audience were just crap! I realized I had a lot more fun at the Rank n File gig, and I was more interested in that moment, listening to “Sundown” and “Long Gone Dead,” than I was listening to the new hardcore coming in where they’re playing faster and faster. It was unlistenable to me.
MTS: So, I started reading The Big Takeover in 1998.
JR: By then we were a real magazine. I guess we stopped being stapled somewhere around 1987. It was the first time we were saddle-stitched and had a glossy cover. After the internet came we tripled our readership and finally had a little bit of money to improve it some more.
MTS: Since I’ve been reading it, I’ve always wondered what your music collection looks like.
JR: It’s not that gonzo actually. It used to be, because I bought so many records and I started getting so many for free when the ’80s turned into the ’90s. But when CDs came along I added those, and that got to be a bit dispiriting. Especially when I had something on vinyl and CD. Did I need both? I was never that kind of collector. I only had one copy of “Love Song” by The Damned. They put out four – one with each member on the sleeve – but for me that was stupid. I just wanted a copy of the new Damned single, so I bought the one with Captain Sensible on the cover and called it a day. In my mind I had a complete Damned collection but then I’d meet someone and they had French singles, Spanish singles.
MTS: Never understood that type of collecting.
JR: I thought I was collecting great artworks and I wanted a complete collection of all the records a band made, but it was because I wanted to listen to all their songs. When I interviewed Andy Partridge we had this little funny argument about it because he used to collect comic books, then rats ate his collection so he started collecting toy soldiers instead! That’s if I have the story straight – the interview was from 1992. I didn’t want to disrespect his collecting ideas. I used to collect baseball cards until I was fifteen. But even with those I used to spend time reading them and looking at their backs and gleaning the data from them. It was such a great thing to collect records because I could look at the sleeve artwork, and I could read the liner notes and glean who produced these records. I got a lot of great data that way when there was no internet and I would cross-reference it in my mind at sixteen. “Shel Talmy produced this Damned single. I know that name…Oh yeah, The Who, The Kinks…”
MTS: The Creation. Though you probably didn’t know who they were at that point.
JR: I did actually. Only because Tim Sommer turned me on to them. He was really into “Painter Man”…so good job, Tim! I was also reading the British press and they would talk about these bygone bands, like Paul Weller would mention bands like them and The Action. I got into so many things just reading the interviews, and I would make mental notes. I’ve been that way my whole life. When I was ten or twelve I noticed The Beatles had covered three songs by some guy listed as “L. Williams.” I thought “who is this L. Williams The Beatles really like?”, and it took me about five years to find the Larry Williams record because I didn’t even know what his name was. Same thing with Arthur Alexander. They covered a few of his songs too, and I wanted to know his stuff. These guys were incredible, but there was no way to know because there was no internet, there weren’t a lot of reference books, and I didn’t have a lot of money for records. I went to this place called Golden Discs when I was fifteen or sixteen on one of my forays into Manhattan and the guy said (adopts Noo Yawk accent) “Hey kid, that’s Larry Williams. You want one of his records?” I wanted the one with “Bad Boy,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” and “Slow Down.”
MTS: Which The Jam did later on.
JR: Yup. And I knew that The Who did “Bony Maronie” which I didn’t know was his song but when I saw it I said, “I know that one too!” It’s just fun thinking that I was somewhere from fourteen to sixteen just discovering all that stuff. Now people that age know ten times what I did back then.
MTS: A few years ago there was an issue of Mojo that came with a CD of all the original versions of songs The Beatles covered. If only you had that, you could have saved yourself a lot of time.
JR: I found a lot of that stuff when my band went on tour and we would hit every record store everywhere we would go. I’d find old singles by the original Dr. Feelgood who the Beatles covered, not the English Dr. Feelgood of the ’70s who were also remarkable. But the original one was a guy named Piano Red, and I bought the “Mr. Moonlight” single (covered by The Beatles on Beatles For Sale) which I preferred to The Beatles version. Stuff like that was fun! It’s still fun!
MTS: That’s why you still do it.
JR: And it’s not that “the good old days” were so much better. It’s just a lot easier now. It’s like the difference between completing a ten mile walk and a hundred-yard walk. They’re both fun, but you get a little more enjoyment out of yourself when you do something that’s harder to attain.
MTS: These days are you more of a vinyl guy or a CD guy?
JR: I gave up. I have two children and I have to feed them. The explosion of multi-formats got me down and 90% of what I’m given to review is digital anyway. I like when people send me vinyl, but it’s the same thing we were talking about earlier. I just want the best music. I can’t be precious about it. I’d rather listen to an incredible album on my shitty computer speakers than a mediocre one on my stereo. I try to put on old Larry Williams records for my son. “This is the roots!” Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins…I got to see all those people play as a teenager or in my early twenties. Jerry Lee Lewis in my early twenties…good god! Extraordinary!
MTS: He still had it?
JR: Yeah! He still has a little of it, even at his incredible age! But by then he was in his 40s and just extraordinary. Playing little clubs too. Even seeing him at Yankee Stadium with Fats Domino after a Yankee Game against the Tigers. I went right by the dugout because they said you could sit wherever you want because the game was over. I wanted to get as close as I could. I had already seen them a couple of times but I could never get enough of seeing those people play.
MTS: Yeah, there’s a difference when you see those foundational artists. Like I saw Bo Diddley at that Little Steven’s Underground Garage Rock Festival back in 2004, and he was incredible!
JR: I was at that one. He played with The Clash in ’79! He also did a great gig in the ’80s at the bandshell in Central Park. Every now and again he’d do a gig like that.
MTS: It’s great stuff, and it still resonates today.
JR: I’ve got a whole bunch of his records. That stuff he did on the TNT movie, that to me is the real Bo Diddley. I always say The Bad Brains are the only band I saw in their prime of that caliber. Of course I never saw Hendrix, he was dead. James Brown, The Who, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and people like that I saw in their 40s and 50s. They were still great. Ray Charles as well. Those are some of the finest live acts that ever existed. Little Richard in 1958? Good Golly Miss Molly!
MTS: On the flip side, what’s the worst concert you ever saw?
JR: Some bands I saw have had an off night but are otherwise great. Like The Posies are still mad at me for trashing them for one show of theirs. They’re one of my favorite bands. I’ve reviewed them favorably live thirty times, but this one gig I saw they were falling over drunk, and I didn’t like it. I said to them once, “If you get nine out of ten wrong on one quiz but you get a ninety-five on everything else in the class, you still get an A. Stop harping on that one gig!” I saw one bad Guided By Voices show like that.
JR: Yeah, I think Robert Pollard was so drunk he fell over the drum-kit at the Bowery Ballroom. For him to be that out of control was unusual because he was pretty damn inebriated for every gig I saw back then. You know, I haven’t seen that many bad gigs because you stack the deck when you love a band’s records. I’ve probably seen a thousand gigs in my life, and most bands are really excited to be performing, and if they have the talent to make those records they can play a good show. Most of the music I like has been recorded somewhat live. Little Richard was given one take, no overdubs. Punk bands weren’t given big recording budgets. I gave a Felt gig in 1986 a really bad review – and we talked about it in the interview we did with them recently – because Laurence was on acid. It was the only time I ever saw the band and he walked off the stage after ten minutes. The crowd milled around for ten minutes wondering if they would come back or until most of them just left. Eventually the band came back and played but it was just a total debacle. They may have been a better live band. Sometimes you see a band once and you make up your mind based on that one outing.
MTS: Sometimes a bad gig can be a memorable experience. Like I would go see the Brian Jonestown Massacre and there were times when Anton their singer would be unable to perform for one reason or another and he would just berate the audience, and it’s a fascinating show. It’s not great musically, but it’s memorable.
JR: And you know that going to see them. It was the same thing with The Replacements. Every time I’d see them I didn’t know if I was going to get the drunk one or the one that was on absolute fire. I was in Chicago in ’84 because I had a girlfriend there and I was staying at Steve Albini’s house. He didn’t like The Replacements and they were opening for X at The Cabaret Metro. He was banned from there so I knew he couldn’t see that gig, but I went and both bands were extraordinary. So I talked him into seeing The Replacements. They were headlining the next night at the Cubby Bear with The Meat Puppets and Green. He liked Green and thought The Meat Puppets were OK, so he went. The Replacements came out and did their drunken thing where they’d play forty seconds of every cover they barely knew. Albini gave me this look like, “You have wasted my time. You are a bad person.” I just apologized profusely, saying “I wish you could have seen them last night. They did their own songs and they weren’t drunk because they were opening for X.” They were excited and they were one of the hottest bands there is to see. There were also a couple of Johnny Thunders shows as a solo act that I walked out on. Everyone was there to see the car crash. It was a rubbernecking delay, not a concert. I’ve seen the Heartbreakers, so I knew what he looked like when he was playing with a real band, and no matter how screwed up he is he could really perform. I talked about that with Walter Lure two years ago when I interviewed him, before he died.
MTS: I recently reviewed the reissue of Thunders’ Que Sera Sera, which I had never heard before. The songs weren’t bad, but the band wasn’t up to snuff.
JR: That’s right. That’s the difference between that and So Alone where he has Paul Gray from Eddie and The Hot Rods and eventually the Damned; Cook and Jones from The Sex Pistols.
MTS: Peter Perrett…
JR: Yeah. When he had The Dolls, The Heartbreakers and that band, he made great records. Without them he was just kind of an egocentric loser, inasmuch as I was always in awe of him every time I saw him, hanging out with him backstage at Max’s wondering “What would you be like if you weren’t such a terrible heroin addict? You’re just kinda sloppy.”
MTS: Unfortunately we never really got to find out.
JR: Yeah. I told Cheetah Chrome that I had him and Johnny Thunders to thank for never doing any drugs except for the legal ones like alcohol. Cheetah said, “How did you do that?”. I told him I saw him throw up in the ice machine upstairs, backstage at Max’s Kansas City and thought “this has gone too far.”
MTS: Doesn’t seem appealing.
JR: Yeah, and I read in his book that Stiv Bators used to pee in the ice machines at the Holiday Inn when they were on tour. What is it with those guys and ice machines?
MTS: I read that book too and I don’t think I’ve used a hotel ice machine since.
JR: I didn’t know Stiv, but I’ve met Cheetah many times over the years. Sometimes he’d apologize for being a heroin addict, but he was the only one into heroin who was always a nice guy. Always pleasant, always up for a drink. Just a fabulous human being despite his proclivities. Of course he eventually quit the heroin, same as Walter Lure did. Walter’s dead now but he bought himself another thirty years, and Cheetah’s still alive. One of the only times I’ve ever cried reading a book was Cheetah’s book, when he got married and had a child, and there’s a picture of him and his mom who he put through hell. What a great story, and what a nice man. He died twice in that book, overdosing. I haven’t died twice, have you?
MTS: Not even once.
JR: That’s pretty fucked up, as they say. But he’s still alive. I saw The Dead Boys a couple of years ago with that tribute singer and it was just great.
MTS: Oh really?
JR: It was him and Johnny Blitz with the Dead Boys tribute singer and two other guys. They just smoked.
MTS: Sometimes you can switch out band members and make it work, but singers are a tough one.
JR: It takes the right guy and they got that guy! The MC5, when they first came back, had “Handsome” Dick Manitoba.
MTS: Yeah I saw them at Central Park, with Mark Arm too.
JR: Mark Arm was the only part I liked. And Marshall Crenshaw? Who thought that was a good idea? But the next time I saw them they had that lady, Lisa….
MTS: Kekula. From The Bellrays.
JR: Now that worked for me. Even more than Mark Arm. Only then did I feel like I was seeing The MC5. You have to find someone who has the spirit and the chops to pull off something like The Dead Boys or The MC5. And The Undertones’ singer too. I’ve seen that band like six times since they came back. I took my son to see them two years ago and he was in heaven. Feargal hasn’t been in the band since ’83, but they got this guy Paul McLoone, and he’s just fantastic, with really tough shoes to fill. Who would want to step into Feargal Sharkey’s job and sing “Teenage Kicks,” “Get Over You,” “Family Entertainment,” “Male Model,” and stuff like that? But people loved that show because he’s so good at it. Hats off to him, because a lot of bands can’t pull that off. You’re right, the singer is the hardest person to replace. At best you do a sincere tribute. The Germs’ guy who played Darby in the movie. (Shane West) was pretty good too. I thought he had the right idea by not trying to be Darby, or acting like he was really in the band. He was just trying to help.
MTS: I’ve heard people ask you this question before but I’m just going to add my voice to the chorus – have you ever thought of writing a book?
JR: One of my proudest moments was when I interviewed Joe Strummer and he said (in a Joe voice:) “You really know your stuff, man! You gotta write a book!” I said “I can’t,” as we’re getting drunker and drunker at this Broome St. bar, and I told him, “I have a really difficult job, Joe. It takes a lot of my time, and I can’t do a book and the magazine.” I don’t have that kind of time. Especially now, with two children and a wife. I don’t think I have the inclination and the intellectual wherewithal to devote myself to one subject either.
MTS: Have you ever tried writing a chapter, if only just to see if you can?
JR: I was hired by Bad Religion to write their book back in 1998. I didn’t really want to do it, because I didn’t want to write anyone’s book. But they asked me, and I was such a huge fan, and I loved interviewing them all. Especially Greg and Brett who are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Greg has a PHD in Evolutionary Biology, and Brett might have a GED or something, but he’s just as smart as Greg is. Just intellectually brilliant, well read, and basically self-educated after age eighteen. So I produced a few chapters, but the only way I could do it was to set an alarm and write for an hour or two every morning. I don’t know if it was good or not because I didn’t get that far into it. Greg changed his mind and decided he didn’t want to publish it himself, and that was the deal that we had so I abandoned it. I wasn’t having fun with it anyway, because it was just one subject and I’m not that obsessed with any one subject.
MTS: What about an autobiographical one?
JR: I’m not famous enough!
MTS: I don’t know…about a month ago I was sent a copy of Michael Belfer’s autobiography (guitarist from The Sleepers and Tuxedomoon). I know those bands, but I didn’t know Michael Belfer. Yet it’s a fantastic book.
JR: I would read that! I’m a huge Sleepers fan.
MTS: Yeah, I’ve read a lot of musicians’ autobiographies, and anyone who was around in that era doing any form of art – it doesn’t have to be just music – has got good stories, and people love to hear it.
JR: John Armstrong, known as Buck Cherry when he was in The Modernettes in the late-’70s and early-80s in Vancouver, has been the writer for the main newspaper in Vancouver, and he wrote the funniest punk rock book I’ve ever read. It’s full of those stories of what it was like to be on tour at that time in a punk band, going up and down the West Coast. You gotta read it! But again, I would have to give up The Big Takeover to write it myself. Maybe if someone wanted to ghost write it…”as told to”…but I’m not famous enough.
MTS: Is the guitar player from The Sleepers and Tuxedomoon famous enough?
JR: I don’t know. I don’t mind talking about myself because I have a lot of stories. I’ve had some interesting experiences. I like hearing other people’s stories, and tend to repeat them. My patent answer is that I do two books a year. My focus is on the history of music, current and past. I’m heavily devoted to it, and I’m constantly trying to find out more about it and pass on what I’ve learned. So, in a way I’ve done…I wouldn’t say eighty-seven books, because those early issues were pretty short…but maybe sixty books. As the years have gone by I haven’t even written more than 40% of them, but they have been an attempt to chronicle in extreme depth and detail, much like a book does, what we think has happened and is happening. I waste a lot of time looking up chart positions for every song that I mention in my magazine, because I want people to know that this was once popular music, and that you may have heard this song in your life if you’re of a certain age. A record that was a #12 hit in 1968 probably would not be a hit now, because the radio isn’t playing anything good. Back in 1967, or 1968, pretty much every single record in the Top 40 was great, other than Englebert Humperdink, and there isn’t a single record in today’s Top 40 I would want to hear a second time.
MTS: I was re-reading an issue of The Big Takeover from 1998 with Radiohead on the cover and it was interesting to read the band interviews where you’re talking with them about their A&R and press people working a record. The mindset that this music could be popular and worth a business investing in it seems so foreign now.
JR: In any given year the biggest selling act in the world is The Beatles and they haven’t made a new record since 1969. They’re the gold-laying goose for EMI, and their publishers, and anyone associated with the band. My dad never liked rock and roll at all, and they were on the cover of Forbes in 1995 because they were the #1 grossing entertainer that year. They hadn’t made a record in twenty-five years, they were just releasing old recordings for the Anthology series, and they outperformed the entire music business and made more than anyone else. He just looked at me and said, “That’s pretty good for a whole lot of screaming.” He was just never going to like rock. For him it was always The Great American Songbook, Hoagy Carmichael, and The Gershwins.
MTS: Yeah I recently went through my dad’s record collection hoping there would be something cool I would want to take, but there was nothing.
JR: I insisted on inheriting my parents records, and I like almost all of them. But I like The Great American Songbook. I was especially glad to own the Sinatra Capitol years stuff my parents had. But they had interesting taste, like Cuban bandleader records. It was interesting to hear Cuban cha-cha versions of stull like “Mellow Yellow.” I can’t remember the guy’s name though. I’ll let you know if I think of it. [It was Xavier Cugat.] But to finish my point about the Beatles, the “golden goose” in the record biz should have stayed making and selling remarkable music made by remarkable human beings as it had from 1900-1975 or 1980 or so, because that sells forever. All that stuff, from Irving Berlin to Marvin Gaye, to Badfinger was top of the charts stuff, but the last 40 years the pop charts has been dominated by cynical pablum, just an excuse to market banal disposable pop stars to pre-teens and teens, and that super dumbed-down phony music has proved ephemeral. Who buys 98 degrees records now? They used to sell five million of every album they made 20 years ago, now it’s like they never existed, while people are still buying 55-year-old Beatles or Stones or Who or Smoky Robinson records, or all the punk rock I came of age on. But that’s why I have a magazine and radio show, and even why I’ve been in my own bands (Even Worse, Last Burning Embers, and mostly Springhouse) and have made albums and toured. There’s still plenty of incredible music being made, but it isn’t mass popular anymore, so since the mid-’70s with punk, you’ve had to find it yourself. I’ve always been trying to be here to help!