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.