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The symbiotic relationship between rock critics and their subjects

Conducting an interview with a musician for the first time in decades had me thinking about the symbiotic nature of the conduct between rock critics and musicians. It is one of the strangest of things because the writer needs distance from his subject so he can impartially comment upon their music. Put it this way, could you accurately review your girlfriends new album? Of course you couldn’t -your judgement is tainted. And so can you be clear about a musician if you like them on a personal level? If they stand you drinks, get you into clubs, share their drugs with you? We like to call that the Austin Scaggs syndrome. On a personal level, when I wrote for mags like East Village Eye in the 80s some of my fellow writers also played in bands and were best friends with me. It was more than difficult to write about their bands -I just couldn’t do it. If forced to I would have said they were the greatest thing whatever I really thought: the friendship would be more important than journalistic ethics.

Or what if you loath them? What if they slung you out of their dressing room? Or forgot to put your name on the guestless? Or, worse, wouldn’t share their drugs? That has happened much more often and I would claim it didn’t matter. I had a big fight with a band once and ripped em in a magazine called Zig Zag. I thought I was offering a true opinion but guess what -ten years later I hppened to hear them again and loved them…

So in that sense it is very helpful to NOT KNOW who you are dealing with except the same manner an average consumer might. Call it a healthy disregard. And yet, and yet, and yet… the person you are writing about is the best possible audience for what you are writing about. To be judged by the person you are criticising is to be assesed by the person who knows best whether you are getting it right or wrong.

But the musician is the last person on earth whose opinion should matter to you. If they like what you’ve written the chances are you’ve missed the point. And remember I called it a symbiotic relationship. It is not a friendship, it is not shared interest. I don’t share an interest with, say, Elizabeth Wight. She is what she is and I am what I am and they are not similar at all.Our relatiosnhip is based upon a shared need but not a shared emotion. What Wight wants from me is publicity, what I want from Wight (as I said to Bret) is the money quote. It’s the two or three quotes (Wight is so unguarded Brit should have his pick) that sells the profile -it proves we got what, say, didn’t get. It’s as far from being friendly as possible: we have a need that meets in the middle.

There is something else one would hope the Wights of the world want from the Nessings and the Jennings: the sense somebody understands them if only musically. But that’s secondary to pushing the product, pushing the Love Grenades of the world.

Also, and most condeming of all, it is a relationship between unequals. The musician is granting an audience to the writer; the writer is beholding. The writer is an ink stained wretch eaten up with envy. The writer either wants to be the or fuck the or at least claim the talent as friend. The artist feels like he’s being deposed in a court case -say the wrong thing, a slip of concentration, a personal frankness, and the symbiotic becomes toxic. So there is a nerviousness between the two as well.

Of all the things I’ve written  profiles are among the easiest. A good interview writes itself and you just follow the story stopping off at the occasional buzzword: “burlesque”, “emancipated”, “weed”, “masturbation”, “mark ronson”… and being sure to take out anything you said that lead up to the quotes and your job is done.

I’d be interested in what Bret made of Elizabeth; of the mess at the heart of symbiotic relationships.

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