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She wouldn’t want me telling you this — the first thing to know about Roni Hoffman is that, unlike some of us, she tends toward the taciturn. In fact, after more decades together than we’d ever admit, I’m still hearing new details of her story.

But it’s a helluva story.

Her boyfriend was among the first of the dubious breed that came to be known as rock critics. You see, back in the day, there were these things called daily newspapers and each one had a middle-aged guy who wrote about jazz and that’s who the dailies would send to cover rock concerts, often with laughable results, at least to rock fans. But along came a publication called Crawdaddy, the first real rock magazine, a year before Rolling Stone. Sandy Pearlman wrote for it. And so did Roni’s b.f. Which meant that at 17 she got to hang out with Jimi Hendrix backstage at a club in Greenwich Village, and later to attend the press conference atop the Pan Am building where, in a publicity stunt, the nascent guitar god had just landed in a helicopter. She was at the Dom on St. Mark’s Place when the Velvet Underground played, and a 17-year-old Jackson Browne opened. She was at Patti Smith’s first poetry reading, before Lenny Kaye strummed along on guitar, and then backstage at the Bitter End when Bob Dylan stopped by to pass Patti the torch as rock ‘n’ roll poet laureate.

Jim Morrison put his arm around Roni’s shoulders and a joint in her mouth. Mick Jagger just put his arm around her shoulders — though the occasion happened to be a birthday party for a raging drunk Norman Mailer, who put his hands all over her. She dined with Lou Reed at the writer Lisa Robinson’s apartment. She and her b.f. shared a house with the Blue Oyster Cult, back when those metal pioneers were called the Soft White Underbelly. She met the young Iggy and Alice Cooper and Marc Bolan of T-Rex and such monumental rock elders as Muddy Waters and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. She was at the celebrated Rock Writers Convention in Memphis in ’73, where the original lineup of Big Star, Alex Chilton’s band, played their one and only gig, and on the infamous Hells Angels boat ride around Manhattan, the same year, where she got to know Jerry Garcia and Bo Diddley, both of whom performed, and where she witnessed the Angels preparing to throw overboard a smarmy young local-TV reporter named Geraldo Rivera. She was in the room when Epic signed a raggedy-ass outfit from SUNY/New Paltz called the Dictators, who would then make the first-ever punk record. An undergraduate Gary Lucas crashed on her couch, a dozen years before he captained Beefheart’s Magic Band and an over-served Lester Bangs passed out in her armchair, a dozen years before he overdosed.

Her kids think of her as their unassuming mom. Little do they know.

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The long tail struck again the other day.

For about a decade, starting in the mid-’70s, I was an editor for a rock magazine called Creem and then a freelance writer for dozens of rock rags. The Internet, of course, was beyond imagining, and so was the idea that any of that writing would endure into the 21st century. I do have semi-carefully packed boxes of some of the mags I wrote for squirrelled away in my basement (just as my wife, a former rock photog, has semi-carefully packed boxes of photos of a bloody Iggy Pop, for example, and Muddy Waters without his toupee). But the world moved on, and so did we.

Periodically, however, a stranger will email or call and want to talk about a near-forgotten story from back in the day. The latest came from a writer in New Orleans named Ben Sandmel who’s writing a biography of Ernie K-Doe and who had stumbled on an article I had written for Creem about Bruce Springsteen. There is a paragraph or two in the story about a concert after-party where Ernie was the entertainment, and Ben wanted to know more. Anyway, he sent me the story, which I hadn’t seen in more than 30 years. It’s far from exemplary — too long, too gushing, a little self-involved (thereby demonstrating all the flaws that continue to afflict my writing) — but it’s not bad, for a 24-year-old punk. And for Springsteen fans, especially in light of the imminent release of the Darkness on the Edge of Town box set and documentary, maybe even worth the slog. Anyway, I couldn’t resist posting it here, flaws and all.

One funny historical note is that there were enough people in 1978 — especially, I suspect, in the South — who seemed to think the name Springsteen, which is Dutch, was Jewish and probably spelled “Springstein,” that two of them wind up in this story of three days on the road with Bruce.
 
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LAWDAMERCY, SPRINGSTEEN SAVES!
Testimony from the Howling Dog Choir
(or Tramps Like Us, Baby We’re Born Again)

I walk with angels that have no place — Bruce Springsteen, “Streets Of Fire.”

The middle-aged white man who runs the biggest oldies shop in the very old city of New Orleans is ranting hysterically on the edge of tears. He has recently seen the movie American Hot Wax and senses that history has passed him by one last time.

“That’s right. I was a disk jockey in Canton, Ohio when Alan Freed was a d.j. in Akron. I was playing [n-word] records, and you know what Alan Freed was playing??? He was playing country & western! Country & western music! Then he starts playing [n-word] records and they fire him after a day. One day.

“Well, I’m sitting in this coffee shop with him afterward, and he’s stirring his coffee real slow and looking over my shoulder out the window. I says to him, ‘Alan, just look at what you’re doing.’ And he says, ‘What?’ And I say, ‘Alan, you’re stirring your goddamn coffee with a spoon! And there’s the cream and sugar sitting right over there and you haven’t put a one of them in!’

“Then I tell him that I’m just going to have to write his next contract for him and that he’s not going to get fired no more! A no-fire contract! I told him that you got to ask for what you want ’cause if you don’t, they figure you ain’t worth nothin’ anyway! And I did it! I did the contract! I did his contract! Listen to me! I created Alan Feed!!! Did you read that in the history??? Did you see that in the goddamn movie??? I said, Did you see that in that goddamn movie???”

And he falls into a little red-faced jig behind his cash register with one arm stretching forward to detain us further and the other stretching beseechingly towards the sky. All we asked was how much for a Huey Smith record.
 
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Several hundred miles up the road from New Orleans, in an empty, hermetically modern conference room that is acutely air conditioned against the buttery summer air, Bruce Springsteen, who’s never met the white man in New Orleans, tells me what he has been thinking about.

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UPDATE: I was reminded how impossible it can be to earn a living as a writer — even if you’re as talented, knowledgeable and experienced as Ed Ward — when I found out that, after a series of broken contracts and reneged promises over the last year, Ed finds himself on the verge of eviction from his modest apartment in Montpellier, France. A Facebook fundraising page has been posted, and it directs you to a “donate” button on his tres enjoyable blog about his current hometown. I’d invite anyone who liked this story or has liked Ed’s NPR work or other journalism or just thinks it ain’t right, to give what you can. And you can re-post this story or send friends to the Facebook page. Ed has less than two weeks, until October 15, to get right with the landlord. Thanks.

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I was reminded of how good Ed Ward is on the way home from work yesterday listening to his story about Sugar Pie DeSanto on Fresh Air. When Ed’s on his game, which seems like most of the time these days, at least on the radio, you find yourself not just in violent agreement, but riffing along, bopping your head, gleefully exclaiming, Tourette’s-like, as his tale of this or that underappreciated cult figure, complete with mouth-watering music samples, unspools from the dashboard. It’s music criticism that comes damn close to being music. You pull in the carport, rush inside and download everything you can find by Sugar Pie DeSanto.

If you have any inkling of who Ed is, you probably know him from his longtime gig as Terry Gross’s “rock historian.” But maybe you were in Austin in the ’70s or ’80s and remember the implacable rock critic for the Austin-American Statesman, the guy who inspired bruised musicians to sport “Dump Ed Ward” bumper stickers, tongue-in-cheek or maybe not. Or if you’re really old you might remember him as a reviewer and editor for Rolling Stone when the magazine was still in San Francisco and still meant the world to people like me.

I remember him in Sausalito, post-Rolling Stone, when he was, among other things, west coast editor for Creem. I had abandoned higher education and the rock bands of New York to try the California dream I’d heard about in all those rock songs. My plan: well, I know a lot about rock music…

But, of course, I didn’t. Not compared to Ed.

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It is dark and it is cold in January in Detroit. Darker and colder than you’re imagining now. And you are broke. You’ve been amicably tossed, but tossed nonetheless, from your railroad flat in NYC because your childhood buddy, Mark the Shark (he of later Studio 54 celebrity), who more or less owns the place, wants his girlfriend to move in. Actually, she’s in already — they just want a little privacy. Besides, you are a few months behind on the rent, as dirt cheap as it might be, because you are really broke.

And here you are. Detroit in the dead of January.

You know John Morthland from Sausalito, where you lived for ten months, on a lark, after abandoning New York the first time and whom you had met through Ed Ward, the ex-Rolling Stone writer (now “rock historian” on Fresh Air), who gave you your start with an assignment to review Thomas McGuane’s 92 in the Shade. John Morthland’s a really good writer and editor and an amazingly prescient musicologist who was first to discover a lot of things pop-cultural that eluded most rock critics, or at least white ones. Things like rap music (before it was hip hop), Sacred Steel and Moe Bandy. He’s in Detroit to be interim editor — interim, because John is strictly freelance or die. And you know him, it should be clarified, only pretty well, though that may be as well as most anyone knows silent, staring, inscrutably smirking John.

You don’t know Lester.

You know of him, but barely, and as much on the strength of that seemingly concocted name — Lester Bangs — as his writing.

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Duncan rock life

This is the full — really full — text, with notes for slides and music, from my, ahem, lecture (see News section) to Smolny College of the State University of Saint Petersburg in Russia on April 17, 2008. Keep in mind that it was geared for Russian students who, I was told, might not know very much about rock ’n’ roll (and if you do, don’t tell them where I lied). Anyway, I spent so much time working on the damn thing I couldn’t resist re-purposing it as a column. The complete, killer playlist follows the text.

 


Thanks for coming. Thanks to the folks who invited me and made up a cool flyer with my old taxi license. It’s really fun to be here in St. Petersburg with you guys.

My name is Robert Duncan, and I’m from San Francisco, California. I’m definitely not a professor, and I’m not entirely sure what I have to offer you. But I have been listening to, playing, loving, hating and writing about rock ’n’ roll for more than 30 years.

I played guitar in a band when I was 12. I left college to be the singer in a band professionally, with some minor success and mostly frustration. At 21, I started writing about music. At 22, I became managing editor of Creem magazine in Detroit, Michigan, where I worked with the famous rock critic Lester Bangs, who became my close friend. If you’ve seen the movie Almost Famous, you’ve seen the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing Lester.

After Creem, I went back to New York City to be a freelance critic, writing hundreds of stories for Rolling Stone, Circus and just about every music magazine there ever was. Among my quote-unquote “accomplishments,” as you may have seen on that lovely flyer, I’ve interviewed Bruce Springsteen, Freddie Mercury, Patti Smith, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, War, ZZ Top, Kraftwerk, and many others I can’t remember or you’ve never heard of. I’ve flown on a private jet with Keith Richards, jammed with Blue Öyster Cult, sung to Sammy Hagar (accapella) and Liza Minnelli, but not at the same time, and have witnessed Phil Lesh, the famous bassist of the Grateful Dead, in his underwear. I’ve seen the Yardbirds when both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck were in the band. I’ve seen Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, in 1969, when they were cool. Dylan, though not in a particularly good phase. Hendrix, several times, and he was too cool. I saw the Ramones at Max’s Kansas City, before the album, and Talking Heads at CBGB’s when there were about 10 people in the room. I’ve also written three books about rock ’n’ roll.

Which is where I want to start today.

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St Petersburg lecture poster

D/C’s own rock ’n’ roll expert, Robert Duncan, has just returned from St. Petersburg, Russia, where he delivered a two-hour multimedia presentation on the history of rock to a full house of students and professors. The former managing editor of Creem and author of The Noise: Notes from a Rock ’n’ Roll Era was invited to speak by St. Petersburg State University’s Smolny College, where pop is part of the curriculum. His lecture, titled “The Noise: Notes from a Rock ’n’ Life,” was a 25-year update of his book, covering his experiences with music and musicians from the ’50s to today.

It is probably no happenstance that Duncan’s son, a Russian language major, attends the school, the first liberal arts college in Russia. But when the faculty heard that dear ol’ dad, a widely published critic and scrivener of three books on rock, was coming for a visit, they asked the son to sign him up.

According to the utterly unbiased Duncan, the lecture was a smashing success, with much furious note-taking by the mostly Russian crowd (who are required by the college to learn English) and rousing applause to cap it off. During a Q&A session at the end, one professor politely protested Duncan’s dismissal of prog rock and the band Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Otherwise, controversy was kept to a minimum.

Though Duncan had been counseled that the young audience might be naive about both historical and contemporary rock, there was surprisingly broad recognition when the discussion turned to punk pioneer Patti Smith. And one young Russian, an aspiring rock critic, his blond locks combed over one eye, collared the errant D/C ECD after the lecture to talk about Sufjan Stevens. Another student sporting a jam-band beard danced vigorously in his seat through every song of the presentation, from Elvis’s “Hound Dog” to the Hold Steady’s “Chips Ahoy.” Duncan was later informed that said student usually just talks to himself.

The complete playlist and text of the lecture is posted in the Noise column on this site.

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