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There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Ticket To Write: The Golden Age of Rock Music Journalism, which is currently streaming on Amazon.
I remember the first time I cracked the cover on a copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the collection of columns, features, reviews, and general ramblings by Lester Bangs. Edited by fellow OG rock crit Greil Marcus, the full subtitle of the tidy little paperback reads “The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock'N'Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock'N'Roll,” which is about as blustery as you can get while still having a shred of truth in there. Even with the bar set as high as all that right out of the gate, though, Bangs lives up to the titular hype with a body of work that is frantic, frank, and sometimes even pleasantly frustrating. Having died at the age of thirty three in 1982, Bangs is the missing man in Ticket to Write: The Golden Age of Rock Music Journalism, the recent documentary directed by Raul Sandelin which explores those heady early years of rock and roll writing that were seemingly as wild and free as the western frontier.
It’s still pretty wild to think that it’s been only six short decades since Bill Haley was setting off teenage riots with performances of “Rock Around The Clock.” Back then there were people writing about pop music, but they were mostly published in Billboard and Variety which were not exactly geared for the masses. These more or less long forgotten writers likely didn’t not think of themselves as producing “Literature” in remotely the same way that Lester Bangs and his cohorts approached the subject. This up and coming generation of music writers saw themselves as just as creatively central to the process of consuming pop music as the people who were creating the content, which was a revolutionary approach. Where else would you find an article with a headlined like “James Taylor Marked for Death” that ends up being mostly about the Troggs?
The unique skillset of the rock writer, as explained in the film, is this: “Know what you like, and be able to explain why you like it, even if the reason is extremely disgraceful” and to express these talents they were forced to create their own outlets by cribbing techniques from the world of science fiction. Zines, xeroxed pamphlets by and for fellow fans, were the start of it all. Some of the better examples of those turned into high class publications like Creem, Circus, Crawdaddy and a few others that didn’t get the memo to start with the letter C. The film does a really great job framing the aesthetic differences between all of these along regional lines. San Francisco was not LA was not New York was not Detroit, and the soul from which these all grew had a bigger effect than you’d think.
Despite the previously mentioned Lester Bangs sized hole, we get a pretty deep roster of great old school writers on display here including Robert Christgau, Jim Derogatis, Ben Fong Torres, and Richard Meltzer. While there was certainly a swinging-dick stereotype applied to the music writing profession back in those days, we also get some excellent insight from Sylvie Simmons and Susan Whitall who more than held their own in the trenches of tight deadlines. It might not have been perfect, but to hear them tell it the world of independent rock journalism was about as close to full-on meritocracy as you were gonna get in those days.
One of the writerly subjects interviewed for this documentary brings up a pretty great quote from Frank Zappa: “Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people with nothing to say for people who can’t read.” To be fair to Zappa, his actual quote is prefaced with the word “most” but regardless the line as it’s remembered hints at the way the majority of writers were perceived by the artists they were covering. The marketing arm of certain record labels, on the other hand, got the right idea and started to wine and dine these underpaid freelancers who were happy for hot meals much less an open bar to abuse. Big Star might not have ever quite reached the levels of fame that they deserved, but without their record label organizing the First Annual National Association of Rock Writers' Convention it’s possible no one outside of Memphis would’ve heard about them, so there’s that obvious upside to having courted the critics.
Like all things, this so-called “golden era” had to come to an end and it did so with the rise of USA Today and People Magazine at the dawn of the 1980s, publications that had readerships which dwarfed the scrappy but increasingly old guard of hipster rock rags. All the edges of the music coverage were sanded off in the process by these bland behemoths. None of this is to say that good music writing ever stopped, but that it simply seems to have spent the intervening years shifting into various shapes from which to refract the changing musical landscape.
It’s certainly true that things have changed. Expense budgets have all but disappeared and bosses don’t pass out bags of weed to their employees (at least based on my personal experiences), but you don’t have to look far at all to find amazing music writing going on these days. I mean, hell, you made it all the way to the end of an article on this site so you clearly know where to find the good stuff. Ticket to Write is a damn fine film, and makes for especially inspired viewing for anyone looking to make additions to their summer reading list.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.