This blog has arisen out of three problems, which took place over quite a bit of time.
First, back in the 90s, I proposed review of a show by a single artist and group to the largest (probably the only) folk music magazine in the U.S. This magazine is long gone and I can’t remember the name. Probably something crappy like “The Village Green.” Anyway, they refused my proposal because they felt I was “too close” to the artists. Interestingly, a review of the same show was published by the largest folk music magazine in the UK (called “Folk Roots” at the time; now surviving nicely as “Froots”).
The “too close” thing is still somewhat baffling. As best as I can tell, the editor felt I was biased because I knew or liked the musicians too well. This can be a very thin dividing line. Of course there will be bands I enjoy and see repeatedly, and I may interview or chat with one or more of the personnel. Maybe I even get to like him or her. Maybe we become, in some way, friends, or at least friendly. Does this mean that if I review his or her or their show, I won’t call it a shitty show, even if it is a shitty show, because I like this person or people? Will I write a powderpuff review because I want to promote my friends? I like to think I will write honestly regardless of whether I have a relationship with the artist. And this blog will be a place where I can do it, and even add a proviso that the artist in question is a friend, or someone I’ve known for many years, or someone I schtup on a semi-regular basis.
I did get away with the “too close” thing for a while in the 90s. I wrote for a national blues magazine, but wanted very much to try to promote local NYC artists as much as possible. The first time I did it, the particular artist was about to release his first CD, and the publisher loved it, so I pretty much got carte blanche to do this sort of thing. And I called songs weak when they were weak, side-players dull when they were insufficient, covers done-to-death when they were…you get it.
But there was one local player with whom I suppose I was “too close.” My actual thinking at the time was that he was not getting the recognition he deserved, and I was trying to get him a little more. It was also true that I went to most of his shows and enjoyed them immensely; is this wrong for a reviewer? Is it too partial, too close? Did I overlook something that was not quite good, not up to snuff, not changed enough from the original? I wrote three pieces on this musician and had another author write one, back in the day when I had my own small local music magazine. I recently re-read what the other reviewer rote, and it was just as glowing as my pieces. So perhaps I was biased toward this player…but also wrote honestly about him.
Number two (if you’re hopelessly lost, this is the second reason I started this blog): I write very occasionally for a national music magazine which recently gave me a book to review; I was asked to do 750-800 words. The cover of the book touted it as a “biography,” but the author’s name was not on the cover, nor was it on the back. When I finally located it, it was on the spine, and it was the name of the subject of the book. There’s a good word for a book of this type: “autobiography.” And it got worse.
It was abundantly clear that the author, a minor Chicago bluesman, had typed it up, run it through spell-checker (so the common words, though not proper names, were spelled correctly), and sent it to the self-publisher. (There was no publisher’s name on the book, not even a made-up one.) The book had never visited a editor, nor even some dope with a B.A. in English. Proper names were misspelled; Howlin’ Wolf’s name was not only spelled “Howlin’ Wolf,” but also “Howlin Wolf” and “Howling Wolf.” A chapter on Maxwell Street was entitled “Jew Town” and began with two paragraphs (“I guess this wouldn’t be politically correct today”) on how the area was called “Jew Town,” due to the many Jewish-run businesses at a time prior to the author’s arrival. The rest of the chapter focused on the buy-sell-trade nature of the area when the author arrived, referring to it throughout as “Maxwell Street.” So the “Jew Town” business was needed why?
As I read the book to prepare my review, I not only inserted my usual bookmarks, but also found myself circling grammatical mistakes, underlying unnecessary inclusions and inserting multiple question marks – as if I were the non-existent editor. It was nigh impossible not to do so. Once I had gone through half of the book, I was reluctant to slog through the rest, and emailed my editor to confirm the deadline, mentioning how truly awful the book was. His response was that I should cut the review length in half, and mention that the book would mostly be of interest to people from the Chicago blues scene in the 70s. (This necessitated a quick reread and underlining the names of musicians mentioned, then looking them up in a blues reference book to see if they were local or national – another major failing of the book and author).
So – I was basically told not to trash the book, which truly merited a good trashing. Whether the author was expected to advertise in the magazine, I can’t say. Maybe. The magazine does make a lot of money by advertising CDs and such, many of which are reviewed in the magazine. Partial? Too close?
Third reason: I don’t have enough outlets to write reviews, and I like writing reviews. Magazine X no longer pays its writers (and in fact still owes me $60 from 2003). This blog gives me the freedom to review more than blues books and CDs, and in fact more than blues, and in fact more than music.
I recently found myself writing shortish reviews on social media, mostly about concerts and small shows I’d seen, all of which ended with the warning, “Your mileage may vary.” (Does anyone even use that expression any more? Well, I do, meaning “you may have a different experience than mine.”) And I thought, what a fine name for a blog of opinionated reviews! Of course, the “o” and the “u” in the word “Your” would have run me an additional $2,800, so let’s hope you can all remember that “Yr” means “Your.”
Eventually, this blog will include some relevant links for monetization (e.g., a link to Amazon to buy the book or CD I’m reviewing), and an address to send books or CDs for review (no promises, though). But for now, I’m just hoping this comes out looking right, and someone decides to read it. Hopefully, someone partial or close to me.