Some of the nicest people make the worst music, and vice-versa
My first review for the Montreal Star, of the Doors at the Forum in September 1969, was headlined: “Doors bore but boppers love it.” I ended with: “The crowd loved every minute of what was passed off as music, and they enjoyed themselves. This is called Being Together and it is an easy enough commodity to produce. All the radio personalities on stage had to say was ‘You’re beautiful!’ and the audience cheered crazily. The promoters of this kind of show certainly know ‘where it’s at.’ They’re laughing all the way to the bank.”
This missive was the very first I opened after the review:
“I don’t know how old you are, but man your old. Too old to sit at your desk criticizing today’s art. Lets face it your not on the right train to where everybody is going. I don’t know how The Montreal Star can pay you to talk about something that your so ignorant of. You make me laugh. Take my advice get yourself a desk on the Lost and Found section of the Star. Because man your lost and I doubt if anyone will ever find you. BEAUTY IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER. YOUR BLIND. BLIND WITH AGE.”
Jim Morrison had been blind drunk—the rest of the Doors just kept playing music without pause, the sooner to get off the better. I was barely 21. That review set an upset-the-applecart pattern that often marked my 12 years on the nightly grind.
Back then I handled everything that came into town regardless of genre (save classical, although in a pinch I reviewed the Bloshoi Opera and Porgy & Bess by the Houston Opera), from Motorhead to Johnny Cash to Charles Aznavour to Keith Jarrett to Genesis to Charlebois to James Brown to Engelbert Humperdinck to Blondie to Barry White to Nana Mouskouri to Liberace to Zappa to Dylan to Tiny Tim and Kinky Friedman to Bob Marley to Tony Bennett to Led Zeppelin.
It’s all a blur to me now, but I count those dozen years as an education in a field that made the leap from the innovations of the ’60s to a gargantuan business.
The formula encompassed about three genres: insufferably sensitive singer-songwriters warbling about their navel, which they often confused with their heart (James Taylor to Melanie); arena rock acts playing the type of stuff that was synchronized with the stage lighting (the kind of Muzak you hear on today’s TV commercials for cars and beer and the like); and “art-rock” from groups like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Genesis, Gentle Giant, and Pink Floyd, that sought to “elevate” lowly rock to Pictures at an Exhibition—dead on arrival. The whole exercise was dispiriting.
The Forum was sold out on April 13, 1970, for the local debut of Zeppelin, the most hyped group of the day.
I can hardly recall such an expectant event, the audience on edge for close to three hours. According to one Led Zep website, I gave them the worst review (for the Star) they’d ever received. Zeppelin offered the illusion that more is better, paving the way for Bruce Springsteen’s marathons. Loudness is a “gimmick,” I wrote, giving an “illusion of Importance.” “Ridiculously monotonous,” “sluggish,” “miserable,” etc.
In short, they blew their wad in the first 10 minutes of the concert, and everything thereafter was mechanical repetition.
My review took them by surprise; Led Zep, pioneers of the apocalypse, had never faced the criticism that they embodied “as much creativity as an encyclopedia salesman.”
Outraged, oh-so-righteous, they sought out a soapbox—the local CFCF newscast—to vent their hurt, before stepping on a plane. Big-time British heavies resorting to local TV! The local yokel in me had to laugh.
A few years later, Phil Collins took 15 minutes out from a midnight gold record bash—at which I murmured audible absurdities during the solemn presentation — to share a drink and a joint and earnestly try to pinpoint the “reason” I didn’t care for Genesis. “Aw, c’mon Phil, you know as well as I do that it’s just a bunch of overblown apocalyptic bombastic schtick!” Nice guy that he is, he just smiled—knowingly?—and shook his head philosophically. The Guess Who never had my blessings, but a promo tour in 1976 brought Burton Cummings and me face to face. The group was on its last legs, and I wore a brand-new Guess Who T-shirt to celebrate the occasion (I had no clean change of laundry, I swear).
Politesse reigned supreme during the Q and A. But at 5 a.m., my phone rang.
“If I woke you up, I’m glad!” It was Burton on a bender, seething over my review of Road Food, which I cut down to size song by song for U.S. rock mag Creem in ’73. “Do you know what kind of harm that review did us?” he blathered wildly, finally advising: “Why don’t you go back where you came from—you wetback!”
A couple of days later, the nice interview got good space, no mention of the unfortunate call. His PR rep phoned in profuse apologies. I told him what I tried to tell Burton: “It’s nothing personal.” Never personal: Some of the nicest people make the worst music, and vice-versa.
For example, long after I had trashed the insufferable Sometimes When We Touch (“the honesty’s too much”), Dan Hill and I shared a pleasant lunch where he poured out his soul.
I often wandered backstage (promoter Don Tarlton being a laissez-faire guy) and saw egos on display—and some insecurities, too. A Beach Boys concert in January 1977 featured the return of wayward boy genius Brian Wilson, who had cracked up on drugs in the ’60s and was now supposedly fit to return.
As I wrote in my review, Wilson, “pale, bearded, his eyes far away from the crowd, clutched at his wife’s hand as he strolled about backstage in silence.”
After the intermission, he wandered out of the dressing room, his vacant eyes staring ahead in an effort to locate his position. He was possessed by a look of panic, then took matters into his hands by walking out a door … leading to a hallway where fans were guzzling down the remains of their beer.
He quickly returned, ashen-faced, panic-stricken, and asked no one in particular, “Where’s the show?”
Heavy-rock concerts were like Dante’s Inferno to me, all spewing smoke and flashing lights and godawful din, the roars and chants and raised arms. And the puke, in the toilets and the aisles. Toward the end of my tenure, at a Kiss show, I slipped on a puddle of hurl and for the longest moment was twisting in the wind trying to avoid landing in it. I returned to the office, only to be told I had 12 column inches to fill.
“Are you kidding?!” I blustered. “They’re not worth 12 freaking inches! They’ll get what they’re worth!” I managed to type out four inches, forcing the night editor to scramble to fill the remaining space with photos (which, when you think of it, are worth the proverbial thousand words as far as Kiss is concerned): “For every heavy rocket fire of sound, there was a change of lighting but, after a while, it got pretty dull. … There was no real emotion put into the music—perhaps because there was no real emotion to be had.” I remember the desultory fog I was in while eking out those pathetic lines: Coulda been writing about myself. About eight months later, I quit the beat.