Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Another Triumph of Late Capitalism

Okay, from February 1994 and the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review, here's my take on a then blockbuster Frank Sinatra album. I offer it up here not so much for its intrinsic value but rather as part of a cautionary tale for those of you considering a career in music journalism, as you'll see in the postscript. Anyway, here it is.

SINATRA'S "DUETS": DOOBIE, DOOBIE, DON'T




You already know the idea behind Frank Sinatra's new album: The Chairman of the Board remakes some of his signature tunes with the original arrangements and some famous guests -- Barbra Streisand, Liza Minelli, Carly Simon, Tony Bennett -- singing along. And you've probably heard the word-of-mouth on the results: Sinatra sounds like Joe Piscopo doing Sinatra, it's obvious the star and the collaborators weren't in the studio at the same time, and some of them -- U2's Bono, Gloria Estefan -- have about as much business doing standards as Sinatra would have doing heavy metal. All that's true, I'm afraid, but it doesn't prepare you for the unholy mess that is Duets.

Sure, the audible reality here is that Sinatra is simply years past it (and not just in vocal quality -- the magisterial phrasing of yore seems ossified, too.) And yes, the celebrities -- even the ones like Bennett who are on Sinatra's stylistic wavelength -- are essentially extraneous; thanks to the impersonal, un-interactive way Duets was recorded, they're more or less reduced to filling in the blanks Sinatra deigned to leave for them. But all that's really beside the point -- it's the concept behind the album that is monumentally wrong-headed. These songs were never intended to be call-and-response duels between superstars; they were written (by people who knew what they were doing) to be sung by an "I" to an audience. And so what we get here isn't some sort of historical meeting of the minds but rather a Wagnerian apotheosis of the celebrity musical numbers from old Fifties TV variety shows, the kind of show-biz exhibitionism that regularly matched up Odd Couples From Hell like Dinah Shore and Tennessee Ernie Ford.

That such an undertaking (and aesthetic) is rightfully obsolete these days seems not to have occurred to anybody involved with the making of Duets, but it's why, despite the high-profile talent involved, the album is pretty much unlistenable. On every level -- beginning with the tacky Leroy Neiman cover -- it was born kitsch. -- Steve Simels


Okay, here's the backstory.

I handed that review in in December of '93, when the album came out (Stereo Review had a three month lead time) and promptly forgot about it and went about my life. Sometime in early March of '94, however, my then editor (who small remain nameless out of a lingering sympathy on my part) called me into her office, closed the door, and looked at me with an expression that seemed equal parts panic and cold fury. I noticed she had a folder full of what seemed to be hand-written letters on her desk.

"Read these," she said, handing the folder to me.

I did, and sure enough, they were angry letters to the editor -- I seem to recall there were about fifteen of them -- taking me to task, often in colorful language unsuitble for a family mag like Stereo, for the Sinatra review reproduced above. I loved them of course. My boss, however, did not.

"Did you read those?" she asked.

"Sure."

"Well, what do you think?"

"I think they're great," I smiled. "Damn, I've been trying to get a reaction out of our readers for months now. Finally, we get one."

"What did you think you were doing when you wrote that?" she asked. I should have realized that the steam coming out of her ears was a bad sign.

I was slightly taken aback, but after a little thought I replied "Uh...I thought I was writing a funny, perceptive and interesting to read review of a big album."

She sat bolt upright. "It's not your job to write a funny, perceptive and interesting to read review!" she all but screamed.

I stared blankly. "It's not?"

"No," she hissed. "It's your job to make people feel good about what they've just bought or are about to buy!. You will never write a negative review like this again, do you understand?"

Well, after that I went back to my office about as my demoralized as I've ever been in my adult life, for obvious reasons, including, you may well think, a rather frightening naivete and innocence on my part. I remained on staff at the magazine for another couple of years untill I got a better offer at last; however, I will leave it to you readers to decide whether or not, as I have often thought, I was morally obligated to have quit on the spot.

In any case, remember that this happened in 1994. I seriously doubt things in the consumer magazine biz have changed for the better in the interim.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

"DOOBIE, DOOBIE, DON'T" -- thats hilarious -- great story

Brooklyn Girl said...

a Wagnerian apotheosis of the celebrity musical numbers from old Fifties TV variety shows, the kind of show-biz exhibitionism that regularly matched up Odd Couples From Hell like Dinah Shore and Tennessee Ernie Ford

Once again, you captured the real essence of the album. i can close my eyes and see them sitting on stools with some cheesy, minimalist, pseudo-hep set behind them ...

Brooklyn Girl said...

And your editor was a sell-out asshole.

Gummo said...

I've never heard of an editor demanding nothing but good reviews. She sounds unusually assholish, even for the magazine business.

As for the review itself, you were 100% right on. The Duets album and its follow-ups were embarrassments for everyone involved. Mechanical, passionless and utterly phony in a way none of the participants' best work ever was.

As to your moral obligations, well --

1. The review was published the way you wrote it.

2. Did you turn in nothing but puff pieces from then until you left?

steve simels said...

Gummo said...
As to your moral obligations, well --

Did you turn in nothing but puff pieces from then until you left?


No, but from that point I reviewed nothing but things I was actually enthusiastic about or at least mildly interested in, which is to say I self-censored myself.

I also began to drink heavily, although frankly I'm amazed in retrospect that I didn't turn to heroin.
:-)

Anonymous said...

whatever happened to that idiot editor ..?

TMink said...

Art and commerce are often strained bedfellows. It was a great review, and it was spot on though. I hope you remember that till your deathbed!

I was worried that you would get some threats from The Chairman's connections!

Trey

steve simels said...

Anonymous said...
whatever happened to that idiot editor ..?

She retired right after I left, with a very nice pension.

In her defense, I think she was under enormous pressure from the suits and feared for her job. At the time, the business was in almost as bad shape as it is now...

Roadmaster said...

Makes me glad that the vast majority of my writing was done for publications with less motivation for profit.

And yes, I've self-censored - which had made me somewhat of an aesthete about blues and "retro" rock music - to the point where my ever-narrowing perspective has a potential audience of 3/100,000.

dave™© said...

Weren't you intruding on Noel Coppage's beat, anyway?

steve simels said...

dave™© said...
Weren't you intruding on Noel Coppage's beat, anyway?

Noel had passed away, at that point.

Anonymous said...

"It's your job to make people feel good about what they've just bought or are about to buy!.

This is one of the scariest quotes I've ever read about music criticism. How do you respond to that except to throw up on the floor. (Hopefully in her office)

ROTP(lumber)

TJWood said...

First of all, to answer your morally obligated question: I'm sure you wanted to quit right then and there, and I'm sure if it had happened to any of your fellow reviewers at Stereo Review, they would have wanted to quit right then and there. You didn't for the same reason they wouldn't have--you needed the income from this gig. But had that same offer you left Stereo Review for been on the table at the time, you certainly wouldn't have thought twice about leaving.

Otherwise, well, where to begin? As editor, didn't she have the power to pull that review if her opinion was what she says it was, or if she felt that the review would get a reaction that would disturb the higher-ups at the mag? Apparently, the music journalism business had changed by then. I was a regular subscriber to Stereo Review in the late 1970's and I can remember numerous negative reviews (by all reviewers, not just yourself) that resulted in some interesting vitriol from your readers. (The ones that stick out for me--Lester Bangs' review of the Stones' Some Girls and yours of Crosby, Stills & Nash's CSN). Do you remember yourself or any other reviewer getting stick from your editors for those?

I did some record reviews in college, and was fairly complimented for them I must say, but never professionally, and I guess this piece tells me that it was just as well.

steve simels said...

TJWood:

The short answer to your question is that through the 70s and 80s I had just about carte blanche -- I could write and say anything I damn well pleased, short of libel, as did all my writers and colleagues.

Which is why this whole episode took me up so short. I really didn't understand that those days were over, largely because I pretty much literally hadn't gotten the memo.

Anonymous said...

Fuck that shit. What was she going to do, take your thumbs?
When I was young and full of beans, I used to review shows for the local Gannett fishwrap. I had lots of fun making fun of various genres, but they never censored anything, and I only got in trouble once: Panned an awful, Branson-ish Lettermen reunion.
Trouble was that nobody told me that it was a benefit for the Children's Hospital. Ooops... :) - bill buckner

Anonymous said...

And while I never encountered an editorial hand that blatant, I've known the type: Just transfered from "Lifestyles," know nothing about music, but want to make the section "peppier." (Which usually degenerated
into a "don't you like anything normal?" debate after one month.)

Look at the bright side, Steve. "Duets II" is even worse... :)-
buckna again

cthulhu said...

I started reading your stuff in Stereo Review in - no kidding - high school during a family vacation of death to Acapulco. I think I dropped the magazine sometime in the early '90s. I remember several negative reviews you wrote (and was glad you steered me away from some real turkeys), and sometimes looked forward to them even more than the positive reviews (my favorite has to be your review of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's In Concert, as you can probably guess from my handle here). Sure, the perfect journalist would have quit right then. But I certainly wouldn't disagree with you staying, and you didn't sell out to the extent of writing positive reviews of stuff you disliked. Plus perfect journalists probably don't eat all that regularly :-/

And I would say you were poaching on Mark Peel's turf, not the late Noel Coppage's...

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Steve had zero moral obligation to quit on the spot, imho. "Life is sad, life is a bust; all you can do ..." If anyone had a moral obligation to quit without lining up another decent job first, it was the editor and the person who hired her.

dave™© said...

I would say you were poaching on Mark Peel's turf, not the late Noel Coppage's...

Wow, that name I do not remember. I was reading SR before Simels showed up (mainly because I liked looking at pictures of electronic equipment and you could fill out that card in the back and all the stereo companies would then send you neat-o tech brochures). I'd look through the record reviews, but they seemed to always be talking about Cleo Laine. Then one day this Simels character shows up and he was talking about groups I'd actually heard of! I'm still a little miffed at him, though, for convincing me to run out and buy "Grand Hotel" by Procul Harum - not exactly their best effort.

steve simels said...

Sorry about the Grand Hotel thing...funny you should mention, I listened to it for the first time in decades last month and you're right -- not their best by a long shot.

Although the record release party I went to at the Plaza was vintage music business excess and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. But that's another story....
:-)

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing it was not so much the letters but that she probably got leaned on by Reprise. I dated an editor who got an earful from a record flack after she ran a derogatory review of Queen's "News of the World" - "How dare you! This is the No. 1 selling album! You will get no more freebies from us!"

geor3ge said...

"How dare you! This is the No. 1 selling album! You will get no more freebies from us!"

Payola never dies. It just becomes "promotional consideration."

olexicon said...

My only experience like that was at the U of S paper "The Sheaf" we wrote our "Year in Music" with contributions from everyone in about 1996. The letters we got back were so hilariously negative that we published them, I wish for the life of me I could remember them, the general perception was we were "music snobs" and we were and proud of it, to an individual. I ran into one of the co-editors about a decade later at a show and we had a laugh about it. This tale makes me glad I worked at a University paper not Stereo Review