Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Great Moments in Labor Movement History: Special Rock Writers Convene, Find Each Other Absurd Edition

Courtesy of the estimable Mike Mettler, editor-in-chief of The Magazine Formerly Known as STEREO REVIEW Sound and Vision, here's my report on the 1973 rock critics convention that appears on-screen in that Big Star documentary I raved about yesterday.

You'll notice that there's no mention of Big Star's performance at said event. You can draw your own conclusions, but here's a clue: Free drinks.

A lot of people really have no use for rock critics. In fact, some cynics have even suggested that The Day the Music Died was the day an undergraduate named Paul Williams first conceived the idea for the original Crawdaddy. But by now it hardly matters what one thinks about the rock press; for better or for worse, like rock-and-roll itself, it's seemingly here to stay. True, no rock critic can make or break an album the way Clive Barnes can make or break a Broadway show (or even the way Downbeat in its heyday could affect a jazzman's career). But still, given a flourishing fanzine underground acting as a sort of farm-team system, and the continuing viability of a number of national magazines preoccupied in the main with rock-and-roll in all its permutations (notably Creem, Fusion, Rock, Crawdaddy, Phonograph Record and that great grey eminence Rollling Stone) it's clear that the rock critic has become, if not an institution, then at least a fact of life.

If that sounds far-fetched to you, clearly you weren't in Memphis this May, when in a classic example of music biz freebie-ism, approximately one hundred rock critics and fellow travelers were flown, all expenses paid, to the first and last annual convention of the National Association of Rock Writers. Last, because early in the convention there was a lengthy debate over a more appropriate moniker for the group. National Association of Rock Critics, or NARC, had a few supporters (for obvious reasons), but it was ultimately rejected as too provincial--there were, after all, several representatives from such British magazines as Sounds and Let It Rock. Also voted down were the International Rockwriters Association (IRA) and my own favorite, Arthur Levy's Love (ALL), in favor of the big winner, the grandiose sounding Rock Writers of the World, or RWW. The Wobblies live, I suppose. At any rate, convention organizer John King was left with a truckload of useless NARW stationery.

The purpose of the gathering, according to the official invitation, was to "provide improved communications with and increased cooperation among writers and all other segments of the music industry, as well as to enhance the profession standing of the rock journalist." Laudable sentiments, certainly, but of doubtful practical value; the rock press is by no means a closed shop, but it is a small one, and most of the critics who attended, if not old friends, were at least old professional colleagues. The convention was the brainchild of Jon Tiven, who, at age eighteen, may be said to typify the second generation of rock critics, having gone the route from fanzine editor (the excellent New Haven Rock Press) to the big time and Rolling Stone. Tiven wrote a rave review in last summer's Fusion of Big Star's Number One Record, which delighted the people at Stax subsidiary Ardent Records (it was their premier release). As a token of their appreciation, they invited Jon to Memphis, where they wined him and dined him, as well as giving him a red carpet tour of their studios.

Jon managed to have a fine time, and suggested that it would be nice of the rest of his critical confreres would be similarly entertained, from which suggestion grew the idea for organizing the far-flung members of the the up till now loosely structured rock press. Intrigued, the people at Ardent convinced their parent company to foot the bill and voila. (There was, apparently, some financial support from outside the Stax Group, Atlantic Records in particular, but most of the other major labels were relatively cool to the idea. Organizer King's comment: "Wait till next year.") Frankly speaking, not a hell of a lot went on; the organizational meetings were interesting on a number of levels, but not terribly productive. However, an executive board was elected, there was some serious discussion about boycotting publications that don't pay their writers, and some of the more affluent delegates even (you should pardon the expression) paid their dues as a means of financing a proposed newsletter. By and large, though, the weekend was an excuse for everybody finally to meet everybody else and get very drunk.

The festivities were kicked off with a mammoth cocktail party at which we did just that. Between gin and tonics, I spent my time in a long debate with Phonograph Record's Ron Ross over the merits of David Bowie while modelling a rock critic T-shirt thoughtfully provided by Creem's ' Lester Bangs and Jaan Uhelszki. Later, after everyone was sufficiently imbued with the holiday spirit, we were treated to a surprise screening of the 1965 rock film classic, The TAMI Show, during which noted punk Mike Saunders boogalooed in the aisles. Other activites included a tour of a nearby Schlitz brewery, a private showing of Peckinpah's Pat Garett and Billy the Kid, a pilgrimage to the estate of Elvis Presley (called Graceland, as the local joke goes, because he couldn't spell grease ) a moonlight riverboat ride with music provided by legendary blues mummy Furry Lewis, and a party at the Stax studios where the fortunate got to sit in Isaac Hayes' chair.

The whole thing was rather like a Shriners' convention or perhaps my senior class trip to Washington; we were billeted at the quintessentially American Holiday Inn (which we shared with a Bible convention, of all things) and a great deal of the weekend seemed to be taken up with running from room to room looking for parties, some of which were provided by record companies that had considerately bothered to set up hospitality suites. Oddly, for a group of people for such a reputation for craziness, very little in the way of outrage actually took place. (The repressible Richard Meltzer was even thanked publically by John King for "cooling it for the whole damn thing.) The high point for me was reached in the disco in the hotel lobby, where, after the final bash, I returned to perform various suggestive dances a la Mick Jagger with some endemic flowers of Southern womanhood while their boyfriends looked on threateningly. A transcendent moment.

Whether the whole affair will ultimately yield anything more concrete than another convention is as yet unclear. Despite some of the muttering about unionization, it seems unlikely. There is, after all, something of a symbiotic relationship between the critics and the record companies, and, sometimes, of course, we're talking about the same people. However, the executive board is made up of some extremely clever writers -- Gary Kenton, Vince Aletti, Meltzer, Cameron Crowe, Dave Laing, Todd Everett, Arthur Levy, John Ingham, The Mad Peck, and I.C. Lotz -- and at the very least they should be able to maintain the illusion of a working organization.. Whether Time or Newsweek will immediately set out to hire official rock journalists, or whether we will now see Lester Bangs doing concert reviews for CBS News is another matter entirely. But I for one won't be surprised.

That last bit, obviously, I got wrong. Hey, I was young.


Billy B said...

You were in Mempho when it was my stomping grounds. I was a 16-17 year old going to concerts and bars (drinking age in TN at the time was 18) in 1973. Do you remember where the Holiday Inn was? If it was on Union Ave in Midtown (close to Overton Square), I've been there many times.

steve simels said...

Jeez, I have no idea. I was blind drunk for most of the weekend.

But Overton Square sounds familiar.

Billy B said...

The Square (as it was known) was where the first TGIFridays opened. It was about a block from the Holiday Inn I mentioned. At that time, there was a cool concert hall on the Square, Layfayette's Music Room. A lot of up and coming bands played there at the time - Billy Joel, KISS, Nazareth, Wishbone Ash to name a few. Loved it.

Brooklyn Girl said...

TGI Friday's was mentioned in the film as a place for a considerable amount of drunken debauchery. :-)

Billy B said...

Here's a link to a pic of a t-shirt from Lafayette's (along with some more info and pics about the place).


Billy B said...

BG - since the drinking age was 18 in Memphis, we used to spend a lot of time at Fridays (as we referred to it). I took my date there after my senior prom. We had Tom Collins.


steve simels said...

Billy B -- the back cover photo of Big Star's second album was taken at that very TGIF.


Billy B said...

Thanks for posting that, Steve. The place excellent burgers. They served them on English muffins. The funny thing is at that time, Fridays and the Square were where everyone hung out. Now Fridays is just a BS chain.

Anonymous said...


Whatever became of the RWW? How long could that have lasted? Drunken anarchists and nihilists shouldn’t form organizations or even committees.

I must have passed over this article because I don’t recall it. Nice to be able to catch it now, forty years later. Shit, it really is just a blink of an eye. Isn’t it?

Vickie Rock

Anonymous said...

Billy B:

I was in Memphis only once in my lifetime. That would be in 1972. My friend Sandy and I, both seventeen, went on a cross-country trip with a couple of twenty-something guys from Chino named Roger and Dirk. We rode on the back of their Harleys. They weren’t members of a gang, or anything. They just had choppers. Nice ones.

We went on a wondrous three-week tour of the US, sometimes roughing it, and sometimes staying in hotels. These guys both had money because they were steel workers. The kind that do the work on high rises. My dad did the same type of stuff, so I could relate to Roger and Dirk on that level, as well as others.

Our “Easy Rider con Pussy” journey took us through countless cities on a route which went through Arizona, Texas,Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, and back through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

We stayed in Memphis for two and a half days. We had a couple of rooms in some old downtown hotel on the fourth floor. We went to a club there and saw The Groundhogs. I don't recall the name of the club or the hotel. The whole trip was an ethereal whirlwind haze.It was super thrilling. We were definitely on the road to find out.

The Groundhogs were a dynamite band. Super ballzy. TS McPhee and Rory are the ballziest. I loved Rory. Never missed an L.A. show.

But I digress, I dug what little time I spent in Memphis. Was there a park there where youth would hang out, or am I thinking of another town?

When I took that trip, I had yet to purchase the Big Star album. I never went to Friday's, but now I wish I did. The hotel we stayed in had a bar and we hung out there.

People seemed pretty tolerant. Being from California we thought the locals might not exactly take to us. But we had no bad experiences in Memphis.

You're making me wanna go back.There's a lot of stuff I'd like to do over there that I never got the chance to do the first time.

Steve's one lucky guy to have caught the original Big Star live. If they came to California back then, I sure missed it.

Vickie Rock

Billy B said...

Vickie R -

I loved the Groundhogs. About the time you were in Memphis, the local underground radio station, FM100 was playing the Groundhogs in heavy rotation. Not sure about the park. At the time you were there, downtown was becoming pretty seedy. Fridays was in Midtown, which was a few miles from there.

Anonymous said...

Billy B.

All I remember about the hotel was that it was a four or five story building by the looks of it. And it was quite old and run down.

Do you think the club I saw the Groundhogs at was Lafayette's? Were there other rock clubs around?

Vickie Rock

Billy B said...

Vickie - Yes on the Layfayette's. The only other places a band like the Groundhogs would have played at the time was the North Hall at the Ellis Auditorium or the Mid-South Coliseum. The former was close to where you stayed close to the river and the latter was on the Memphis State U campus. The North Hall held about 2500 and the Coliseum could seat about 12000. The North Hall was one of the best places I've ever seen a concert.