: Throwing it back to “RPM’s” ’85 college daze when yours truly’s first music-related by-lines debuted for the first time in my college newspaper, the Daily Collegian (New England’s largest, or so the slogan went). Even back then, it had been a four-year run-up to pseudo-Bangs-ian bliss.
I had already been writing professionally, since I was 17 and still a high school kid. It seems amazing to me when I contemplate the trajectory of events now.
That summer, I was a shy high school student headed for my senior year. My vast work experience to that point consisted of laying on a mattress picking cucumbers under a soul-crushing sun, and drearily washing gravy-encrusted dishes at a strip-mall restaurant and listening to the Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye In The Sky” ad infinitum. I had hesitatantly applied for a part-time sportswriting job by submitting — at my mother’s urging –three years’ worth of my self-drawn, self-written, self-published baseball magazines (circulation: four), which I began creating at age 14.
I got the job, I think, because: 1) I was willing to work cheap ($15 bucks a week after-school); and 2): the paper’s editor, Frances Chastain (yes, I’ve never forgotten the names every editor I’ve ever had these past 35 years) seemed genuinely impressed, or at least perplexed, that a teenager kid started — of his own volition — giving himself weekly deadlines and adding a bit of anxiety to the usual stresses of homework, math tests, and papers on Yalta due by 8 a.m. And then kept those deadlines through prime dating and other extra-curricular years (that was easy: I had no dates, and this was my extra-curricular activity).
But one day during the summer of 1981, out of the blue, the seasoned editors of my weekly town newspaper The Amherst News — out of courage or desperation or both — suddenly, without warning or flinching, named me ‘Sports Editor’ when the seasoned SA (read: a trained journalism veteran who knew what he was doing!) — suddenly quit.
I muddled on as best as I could with the guidance of a couple of senior editors — actually the sportswriter’s wife, who was also an editor named Janis Gray, took me under her wing — and I covered football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse (remember, this was Amherst) the best I could, if amateurishly. I did take a stab at writing a light, humorous first-person piece on the cult of what’s now come to be called ‘fantasy’ baseball.
But back then, it was a dice game purely built on luck and chance, plucked from the Charles Einstein series of Fireside books on baseball. My brother and father and I picked our favorite players for teams and modified the rules that gave us “managers” a little more say in how the vents transpired (calling for a steal attempt, say). Anyway, that first-person piece, I was told, was probably the best (or at least most entertaining) thing I had written to that point. perhaps fittingly, it turned out to be the last story I ever wrote for the paper, which folded later that month, in January 1982.
By the time I hit college in the fall of 1982, music was my first love and a fast-emerging, all-consuming obsession. So it was a big, trembling deal for me when, in 1985, I took the plunge to see whether I could write credibly and intelligently about it. Oh sure, I had been a drummer during my childhood and adolescence, and had even sung rock cover songs in public before, going so far as to even step onto a stage in front of a hundred or so hearty partying college kids at a campus club.
But I knew that being able to play music, or being a drummer or a guy who could carry a tune or whatever, didn’t mean squat when it came to translating melody, rhythm, feel, mood, intent and the rest of it into actual words and ideas and concepts. You needed to be able to actually write, and listen, and think, and not necessarily in that order. Simply loving the music, or even being a “rock star,” had about as much to do with writing about it as “dancing about architecture,” to paraphrase Frank Zappa (but not in the anti-critic way he intended). I mean, would you trust Kip Winger or Tommie Lee to provide an informed dissertation on, well, anything except maybe banging groupies backstage or how to best blow frosted heavy metal hair into a wind machine?
Conversely, if you could make a Zoning Board meeting interesting, or at least intelligible, or learn how to read a school committee’s architectural blueprint for the proposed family rec center, you were in pretty good shape. After that kind of creative invention, critiquing Axl Rose’s sophisticated romantic imagery (“I Used To Love Her But I had To Kill Her”) didn’t seem too tough a task.
I credit Jim DeRogatis, a helpful editor at Rolling Stone, for giving me that mindset. Responding to my humble first story pitches in the mid ’90s — I had spent most of the previous ten years in the daily trenches, mostly as a necktie-wearing news reporter — the editor informed me that, hell, if I could survive covering the dregs of New Jersey politics, I could certainly manage handling reviewing a rock & roll show. After all, he added reassuringly, he had spent years covering squalor and dramatically diminishing returns for a neighboring Jersey rag. Why, I thought giddily, that was awfully close to my beat chronicling mayoral malaise and the school metal detector beat for the Trenton Times!
That sage, confidence-boosting piece of advice, and the immediate rescue from invisibility and anonymity that having by my by-line appear under the RS mastead afforded me, set me on a promising path forward to the fabulously lucrative life I lead today.
But, back to 1985 and the hot, soon-to-be summer of Cyndi Lauper, The Power Station, Billy Ocean, and Live Aid (after all these years, I still feel a smidgeon of guilt for blowing off the Little League tournament team I was supposed to cover in order to be able to watch and hear every Satellite simulcast minute — and naturally, get blasted with my roommates).
That spring, as I floundered badly in my utterly impenetrable college Spanish language classes (don’t ask; it was supposed to be an easy layup after the waking nightmare of Polish linguistics), I seized the opportunity and distraction to weigh in on a couple of new LPs by a pair of past-their-prime rock superstars who weren’t even what college kids listened to anymore. Write reviews of Jimmy Page’s and Mick Jagger’s new albums, you say? To me it was, as the Cure coined, just like heaven. Damn the quizzical looks and disappointed gazes from the parade of stunning Spanish instructors whom I routinely disappointed with my incomprehensibly misunderstood translations of Spanish text. Now my true calling had been, well, called. I would be foisting my Ballantine and insomnia-fueled rock & roll wisdom on the 21,000 students who regularly visited the coffee and beer-stained pages of New England’s Largest College Daily.
I bolted immediately for my cherished haunt, Backroom Records (R.I.P), in town, bought the LPs with money made from my meager part-time newspaper “salary,” rushed back to my dorm, and fired up my roommate Pete’s kick-ass stereo system (there were no two ways about it, Pete reasoned, he had to have a state-of-the-art system; being a huge Pink Floyd fan, one needed the proper equipment to appreciate all of the, ah, nuances of what the music was capable of conveying to an appropriately prepared head).
Not surprisingly, my 21-year-old Stones-obsessed self gave an enthusiastic thumb’s up to Mick Jagger’s first solo LP, “She’s The Boss,” (even if I saw it as an implicit threat to the well-being of the group’s continuing as a whole); and, alas, a middling, mixed take on the Jimmy Page/Paul Rodgers-led stodgy supergroup The Firm, whose moniker for me then (and now) too aptly captured the bloodless, stiff-suited corporate rock vibe of the group. Thirty-one years later, I’m glad to report, I can still stand (mostly) by those early published opinions.
I genuinely liked some of the stuff on “She’s The Boss.” In fact, a year or so later, my best friend from junior high allowed me to boozily belt out Jagger’s “Just Another Night” from “She’s The Boss” — twice — while strutting the stage like a bantam rooster, and whipping my microphone cord around like a lasso. For better or worse (probably much worse), I was going on gin and instinct (with a nerve-numbing shot of possible self-delusion), slogging my way through an ill-advised fantasy hybrid of my two favorite rock frontmen, Mick and The Who’s Roger Daltrey.
Alarmingly, the frat-boy and sorority girl whoops, hollers, and cheers (at least I think they were cheers) from the well-oiled collegeiate crowd only egged on my Bombay-fueled quest to channel the rock gods by imagining that I was Jumpin’ Jack Flash whipping his sash at Madison Square Garden, or a fabulously tressed Roger Daltrey, muscled and marching through those green lasers on “Baba O’Riley.”
The best part in relieved retrospect? Smartphones weren’t invented yet, and no one (certainly not me) reviewed the show for the college paper.
RPM TBT: The special guest frontman of “The Chill”, impeccably classy as usual, and around the time of his two-night stand channeling Jagger and Daltrey (standing in front of a few of his idols)