Thursday, August 11, 2005

33 1/3: a conversation with michaelangelo matos - part two

Q: Obviously David doesn’t want to use any of his writers twice.

A: No, of course not. I wouldn’t either. And it sucks because I would love to do another one. I’d do one a year if I could but I absolutely believe he’s doing the right thing.

Q: So this was a totally positive experience?

A: Generally, yeah, except for my one and a half star rating on Amazon, my customer rating. I think like five people have reviewed the book and everybody hates it or something. It’s kind of funny. Basically the complaint boils down to, He didn’t write about Prince. He wrote about himself. Well, yeah, I did write myself but I wrote plenty about Prince. You just didn’t read past the first twenty pages.

Q: David and I talked about the fact that you have to be either brave or naïve to write one of these, because music is so personal, the chances of making everybody happy are pretty damn slim.

A: Well, you don’t write them to make people happy. You don’t write criticism to make people happy. That’s insane. I just think that mindset is ridiculous. That’s the thing that people are really puzzled by when they read the book and it’s not all like, Prince is a genius and everything. The one thing that I’m really happy with about the book, I mean, in an overall sense, more than individual passages, is that I have never read a critical book about Prince. And I have read a lot about Prince. You get biographies and you get a lot of dirt. You get a lot of, He was this kind of tyrant in his personal life, and He treated his band like shit and all of that. That’s all fine and well and I’m certainly interested in it but . . .
I don’t know if you’ve seen the Franklin Bruno book about Armed Forces yet.

Q: Not yet.

A: Great book. Easily one of the best in the series. And I noticed something. The Armed Forces book is set up alphabetically. Like, the book is written by topic in alphabetical order, so it starts with abbreviations and Quizzling Clinic is in Q, like that. It’s a really, really good way to organize the material, especially since a lot of what he ends up writing about and a lot of what permeates the book is the Columbus incident. It’s very much about the Columbus incident as much as the record, and it works that way better than it would if he were to do it in just a straight chronological fashion because it would feel a little bit more moralistic or whatever. He doesn’t cheapen anything by it. It enhances what he’s talking about in a great way.
And I wrote him because, after I started reading the book - and it’s a great book in the sense you can just skip around - after about an hour with the book I thought, I’m going to look up these words. They have to be in here. And they weren’t. And the words are “revenge” and “guilt.” The single most quoted thing Elvis Costello ever said to an interviewer is his classic line from ’77 to Nick Kent about revenge and guilt. And Franklin was just like, he passed on that, he passed on Dancing About Architecture, he passed on Bebe Buell, because they’ve been rehashed too many times. I think that’s a major guiding force, not just with Franklin, but I think with a lot of people who are writing these books. There’s a real hunger for the people who are doing them, I think, to not state the obvious the again.

Q: And David allows you to do that.

A: Right. And that’s not every book but, you know, I think that’s the best thing about this series is they’re perspectives. It’s a series of perspectives on records. It’s not just the canon. For example, when Rolling Stone does their 100 best albums of all-time type of things, you read those and it’s just very “Here’s the canon.” “Eat your spinach.” “Here’s why these are good for you.” And “Sgt. Pepper will always be the best record ever made.” That kind of thing. Now I write for Rolling Stone occasionally and I don’t hate Rolling Stone, but that is what it is. This is just a way to really dive into these things and see what you can take out of them. Some people do it better than others, but that’s really the idea.

Q: You mentioned Franklin’s book being one of the best.

A: That one and Douglas Wolk’s.

Q: Give me a quick Why on those as your favorites.

A: Partly because Douglas is one of the handful of best music critics currently working. I mean, I’m certainly biased. Douglas writes a column for me at the Weekly, but there’s a reason he writes a column for me at the Weekly. He’s lucid, he’s funny, he does not overstate. Which is really kind of an amazing thing in a music critic. He doesn’t resort to hyperbole. When he delivers a whopper, it’s actually a whopper. Like, if he gives you a whale, it’s actually whale-size, the thing that he’s talking about. He doesn’t exaggerate that much. And that book in particular, it’s really well reported. It’s a tremendous piece of scholarship. I mean, that’s a good example of a way - a really obvious and terrific way - to write about that record that nobody’s done. Nobody has talked about the Cold War. Nobody talked about James Brown in terms of the wider world most of the time. They talk about him terms of the chitlin’ circuit, in terms of hip-hop, in terms of show biz. And those are applicable, but at the same time James Brown didn’t become probably the most influential musician of the 20th century by not having some kind of . . . . I mean, it isn’t necessarily a book about how James Brown impacted the Cold War or anything. It’s about how the Cold War impacted that performance. And I’ve never seen that anywhere.

Q: So it’s a fresh angle.

A: Yes.

Q: You said you would do this again if you could.

A: Oh yeah.

Q: What album would you do?

A: Well, actually I did a reading with Douglas, Mike McGonigal and Colin Melloy down in Portland in January, and we read from the book, we took questions, it was pretty fun. It was enjoyable, fairly low key as book readings tend to be, and pretty nice actually. And one of the things that we were talking about were the other books we wanted to do. The thing that I find kind of amazing is that I know Kim Cooper is doing In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and sixty percent of the time when I’ve talked to other writers about what they would do – maybe not sixty percent, but a good number – at least four people have told me they wanted to do that record . That’s kind of amazing.
That’s not the record that I would do. Because one of the things that I’ve thought about is What if you could like do a sub-series of records? You know, the 33 1/3 series that nobody would buy a book about? Because Douglas Wolk told me the first one he proposed to do was Wanna Buy A Bridge? which is a Rough Trade compilation from 1980. And it’s a great record. It’s really one of the best records ever made. It’s been out of print for twenty-five years and it’s never going to be in print again.
The book I would do in a minute, if I were to have complete carte blanche, is The Avalanche’s Since I Left You. And I would do it exactly the opposite of the way I did the Prince. Basically I would dive in - Side One, Track One. I would just dive into it and I would start from the beginning of the first song and I would end at the end of the last song. And there would be tangents and there would be all kinds of other things going on. You know, I would bring everything I had to bear on that record, but I wouldn’t do it anywhere near the way I did the Prince book.

Q: Okay. David retires to an island in the Caribbean?

A: What album does he take to the desert island? Is this a Stranded question?

Q: No, David retires and you’re named series editor.

A: Well, I mean, I’ve given David want lists. I’ve told David, You’ve got to get these people to do these records. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen. But I’ve totally given him names.

Q: What’s the first assignment? What writer on what album?

A: I would give Dave Queen a choice of records to write about. Dave Queen is a writer from Canada that I use a fair amount. I mean, I’d let him decide, but if it were up to me I would have Dave Queen write something about Sabbath.
One thing that just occurred to me that I want to bring up. Have you ever seen Stranded, that book Greil Marcus edited in ’79?

Q: Sure.

A: You know the concept – 20 writers pick the album they’d take to a desert island. You know, I was obsessed with that book for a long time when I was a teenager because it was sort of the ultimate assignment. To get a chapter in Stranded was like everything a rock critic could dream of, or somebody who wanted to write about music could dream of. So this is sort of like super-sized Stranded. I mean, it’s really sort of the ultimate assignment.


33 1/3: a conversation with michaelangelo matos - part one

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