Frank Gutch Jr: Confessions of a Rock Critic (Or, I Hear Dead People)….

The best review I ever wrote, nobody read.  It was for an EP virtually no one heard and a band virtually no one remembers (outside of Sea Cliff NY, anyway) and it may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back (actually, mine), the review which makes me wonder why I even bother with them.  There are only so many “if a bear shits in the woods” scenarios one can take before cracking, you know…

The band was Stealing Janeand the EP was The Signal— six songs I should not have liked but could not deny— and I wrote about it over a day’s period, swimming in caffeine.  It was pure sweat and blood and happened in a bubble and by the time I hit the “save” button to prepare it for posting, I was both exhausted and apprehensive.  I was afraid no one would read it, but more importantly, I was afraid no one would hear the music.  Yes, for some of us, the music matters.  With The Signal, the music mattered more than you might think.  It inspired me, though I wouldn’t realize it until a few days later when Bryce Larsen, the vocalist and lyrical genius behind Stealing Jane, sent me an email saying that it was not only the best review they’d ever received but the best review he’d ever read.  So I did  something I am not wont to do— I re-read it.  Please understand that I do not like most of the things I write.  Like that musician/perfectionist, I always find things that I would change.  But damned if I didn’t like it.  Top to bottom, it said everything I wanted to say and even sounded good saying it and to this day I look upon it as a yardstick.  This is why I’m writing, I tell myself, and this is the level at which I want to write.  (If you should be so inclined, you can read the review here) (It’s not a plug but an explanation)

Too many of my reviews and articles fall way short of that yardstick, I am well aware, and I sometimes want to throw in the towel but I can’t.  I write for the music and the musician and, believe it or not, for the fans of music who want or need to hear the Stealing Jane‘s out there and who are willing to break out of the box to find them.   And, trust me, there are tons of albums waiting for an owner to take care of them and lots of musicians making them and possibly many potential fans of those musicians as well, though they seem harder to find every day.  Partially because you, Dear Readers (which I borrow unashamedly from the delectable young Nadia Elkharadly, who probably uses the term more than she realizes), hear Dead People.

Have you ever wondered why people buy albums or books or want to see certain movies when celebrities die?  Have you ever done so— bought an album specifically because the artist has tripped off this mortal coil?  ElvisMichael JacksonStevie Ray Vaughan?  Gone to a movie after an actor died?  Bought a book after an author died?  If so, please explain the thinking process to me.  To me, it is the intellectual equivalent to walking by an open casket of someone you don’t know and have never met, something I have always personally thought abhorrent.  While you’re at it, riddle me this— why do people go out of their ways to visit graves of celebrities?  It’s a grave, people.  The vast majority of us do not even visit the graves of close relatives but are not only willing but eager to find Jimi’s headstone?   Overdub Haley Joel Osment (I see dead people…)  Fade to ???.

You also hear dead people.  Do you even realize it?  You listen to old music constantly— most of that music the product of musicians long gone.  You swim in it.  You obsess about it.  If you don’t think so, explain to me why there isn’t any good music out there anymore.  I should put quotes around that because it is used often enough to have become a quote.  I would ask people who say that, “Isn’t there?”, but that would be like asking a dead man to breathe.  Of course, there isn’t.  If there was, they would be listening to it, wouldn’t they?  And they would, if they could find enough time between hours of The Beatles and Michael Jackson and every other relic of the musical past inhabiting their ears and lives.  “Sorry, man.  Can’t afford the ten bucks for the new Green Pajamas album because I have to stop by Starbucks and anyway, I’m saving up for that Beatles Ambient Sounds Box.  You know the one.  Where John belches and Paul farts?”  You think that’s taking it a bit too far?  I wonder…

I started writing back in ’71, right after I was released from the Army, but it would be a year or two before I would write about music.  The first review I ever had published was of a Cargoe album and it was published, kind of, in retrospect.  I had sent it to Barry Glovsky at Fusion Magazine on a whim.  I typed it out on an old Underwood in a fit of fury late one night while listening to the album over and over until the review was done.  I was angry.  In my mind, the album was dead, killed by a music industry so steeped in greed that they would kill all music if they found a profit in it.  I offered Cargoe as an alternative for those who “didn’t bite bubbles in the bathtub”, a phrase I borrowed from someone I wish I could have credited (but I had no idea who).  To my surprise, Barry published it.  I received a letter from John King who was doing publicity for Ardent Records at the time saying thanks for being the first person to give Cargoe a review in a national magazine.  At the time, all I could think was, wow, Cargoe‘s not dead.  Little did I know that they might as well have been.  (Read the full story of Cargoe here, should you so desire)

I wrote a few more reviews for Fusion before they folded, wrote for Primo Times out of Bloomington, Indiana, and a few others.  Always about the underdog.  (No, not UnderdogThe underdog!)  Oh, I suppose I could have increased my chances of success by writing about The Beatles or The Stones or any of the superstars of the day, but the music always overrode the need to be published.  I opted for Capability Brown and Magma and Legs Diamond, musicians of a less popular stature but producing music more than worthy of the attention it  received.  I think of all the pieces I wrote, the most significant was The Story of Ardent for Bomp magazine.  I submitted the article and it was edited and revamped by, I believe, Greg Shaw and Ken Barnes, who had information to which I was not privy at the time.  It’s significance beyond telling music fans the importance of the label?  It would be the core of The Story of Cargoe.  My first “historical” piece.

Speaking of which, I laugh when I think back on Rock History and its slow acceptance by the established orders of education.  I audited such a class at the University of Oregon in the early seventies.  I can’t remember if the university even gave credit, but I don’t think it much mattered.  They supplied the room and rubber stamped the instructor and college students were given what I am sure was a weak lesson in rock music and its culture.  It was weak by definition, in fact.  To highlight a period of music which at that time was still happening was just short of absurd (though you might have salvaged it by renaming it “Current Events”), but the attempt was both admirable and necessary.  The educational establishment was losing touch with students and without a doubt students were losing touch with education, at least in the way it was being presented.  Rock History was the perfect catalyst.  I remember very little of the couple of classes I attended.  Mostly, my thoughts were that I knew way more than the clowns who were teaching.  That year, if you looked up “asshat” in the dictionary, it would have said “egotistical idiot; i.e., Frank”.  Just because I thought I knew something didn’t mean I did.

Don Swancy, a Dallas/Fort Worth disc jockey/radio man of the early seventies, once told me about a Rock History class that he once taught.  He covered the mainstream bases the whole term until the last class, during which he tossed in not what everyone knew but what he knew.  He ended the class by playing the entirety of Space Opera‘s self-titled album on Epic, hoping that the people who cared would equate what was to him an album right up there with the best, with the best.  I wondered while he was telling me this whether anyone did.  I envision a cartoon in which Swancy stands in front of a large class lecturing, the only words getting through being The Beatles and The Stones and Jimi Hendrix.  You know, like the dog cartoon in which the only thing the dog recognizes is his name?  Jeez, I hate having to explain things like that,  but I’m not good enough a writer to make it obvious.  It’s not you, it’s me.

But I digress.  I started writing reviews again in the mid-2000s after a couple of decades of naps and failed affairs.  Then I discovered the indies (and I mean the true indies and not those indies embraced and co-opted by the major labels and passed off as indie) and the music overwhelmed me.  Dave Pyles at The Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange (FAME) gave me a chance to write for them (thanks to an introduction by Cowboy‘s Bill Pillmore),  I started my own web pages (Rock & Reprise), and a site called swampland.com took me on.   When the connection to Swampland petered out, Luke Torn at Pop Culture Press accepted my offer to write The Story of Cargoe.  In a few short years, I went from writing only occasionally to writing full-time.

Why do I do it?  Not for the money, that’s for sure.  I do it because music has been, besides family and friends, everything to me.  Because music has never let me down (though the industry and certain musicians have and do on a regular basis).  Because there is something deep within me which makes me.  It’s not ego.  Writing is never about ego, at least for the writers I read.  In fact, should you ever want to be humbled, write a review.  Chances are, if it’s good enough and the right people (person) find(s) it, you’ll be humbled plenty.  See, I could not explain why anyone else does it nor how they do it, I can only give insight as to why I do it.

Music is a miracle.  I evidently found this out in the womb.  Momma used to tell me that before I was born, she would be listening to the radio and would be singing along and I would dance.  Well, maybe she didn’t tell it that way but that was the way I heard it.  Even when a baby, she said, whenever I would get antsy, she would turn on the radio and I would settle down.  When I was tall enough to reach the radio dial, I evidently delighted in turning it to the music I liked.  My most distinct childhood memory (besides the tin gas station I got one year for Christmas— it pumped water) was of my mother picking me up and dancing me across the room to Jo Stafford‘s Shrimp Boats.  When Dad bought Momma a console radio/record player for Christmas one year (it played both 45s and 78s), it was all over but the shouting.

Jeez, there I go again.  Someone needs to tie me to the railroad tracks.  I slip off-subject more than a pee wee hockey team at their first practice.

What was the subject?  Ah… reviews.  I had no idea what a music review was until I discovered Rolling Stone.  Names like Bud Scoppa and John Mendelsohn and Lester Bangs slowly became names which meant something.  Scoppa because I liked the music he liked.  Mendelsohn because he took chances.  Bangs because he was certifiably crazy.  Through RS, I discovered Downbeat magazine because of all the writers I was to discover over the years, none influenced me more than Ralph J. Gleason, and Downbeat was also Gleason’s beat.  From there, things got crazy.  There was Alan Betrock and New York Rocker, Greg Shaw and Who Put the Bomp (later shortened to Bomp), Ken Barnes and Bomp as well as Radio & Records.  Newspapers and zines started popping up everywhere— Trouser Press and BAM (Bay Area Music) and Crawdaddy! and Rock and in the UK there was New Music Express and Zig Zag.  At first, tens and then hundreds, or so it seemed, all with music at their cores.  Both the writers and the zines became part of my culture which slowly morphed into my counterculture, thanks to Gleason.  At some point, and I’m not exactly sure which, those papers and zines became indispensable.  I loved reading anything music-related.  Soon, I wanted to write about it.

Why do I still do it?  I mean, I’m an old man who has lived most of his live.  What do I have to offer?  Well, for one thing, information, assuming that information about music is still viable.  Information for those who love music and have not stopped living— for those who have tired of hearing Dead People.  I also offer musicians a chance to spread their music beyond their circles— as small a distance as that may be.  What I hope I give music fans and musicians is a chance to hear and be heard.  To that end, this is how and why I do what I do:

I only write about music I like.  While it is true that it limits my exposure, it allows me to focus on my area of interest— the indies.  My indies are the do-it-yourself indies, the ones who have to scrape together everything they can to make a go of it.  My indies are the ones who have or maybe have even reached potential.  My indies play music which strikes a chord in me, whether deep or just under my skin leaving an itch which needs scratching.  My indies are part of me or maybe just part of that which I surround myself.  Because the music is that important to me, I do not take submissions for review (although there have been exceptions).  I don’t have time.

I don’t have time because there is way too much good music out there, true, which belies all of the whining about there being no good music anymore.  I hear it.  I hear it every day.

I don’t have time because I make it a policy to listen to each album ten times before writing about it.  It takes that many just to hear what’s going on and, sometimes, to even understand the intent.  I cannot even begin to count the breakthroughs I’ve had on albums just before the ten-listen rule expired.  Do you know what made my favorite radio stations rock?  They listened!  While Portland’s KISN and Seattle’s KOL and KJR dominated the Pac NW in my early years, the stations which really counted to me were Lebanon’s KGAL and Albany’s KRKT and Eugene’s KASH.  Because they didn’t just regurgitate Billboard.  They listened!  Why do you think I to this day consider Sean & The BrandywinesShe Ain’t No Good and The Live Five‘s Hunose sixties hits?  How do you think I found Funkadelic (Thank you, Eugene’s KEZL-FM) or The Gants (KASH, you were the best!)?  I learned my lesson.  To hear the best music, you have to listen.  So I did and I do.

I don’t have time because I take each review and article personally, sometimes too much so.  There is a  phrase which gets passed around a lot among writers and musicians about songs being musicians’ babies.  I first heard it when I talked with Dan Phelps about producing and playing on Jess Pillmore‘s Reveal.  To paraphrase Phelps, they had a hard time honing down the list of tracks for the album because for Pillmore, each and every song was one of her babies and how do you come to grips with loving one more than another?  They did it, but it wasn’t easy.  The decision process paid off, though, as far as I was concerned.  Reveal was my personal pick for 2005’s Album of the Year.  It still is.  (You can read my review here)

I don’t have time because I take a lot of time talking with and trying to help musicians I find worthy.  Since the collapse of the Major Label system, working things out has become a crapshoot.  Musicians sort of know what to do, kind of, and usually it is a matter of inches or pennies to make it work.  There is also a mental aspect.  You can beat your head against a wall only so long before it starts to hurt.  Music isn’t a birdhouse.  You don’t build it and stick it in your yard with a price tag on it and expect it to sell.  You have to create it and nurture it and produce it before thinking of marketing and all of the other processes involved in getting it to the consumer.  And it is not done when it’s finished.  You have to support it.  Although it looks easy from the outside, it isn’t.

I don’t have time because I spread myself too thin.  I know that, but there is no other way I can do it.  In writing, when the words flow, you write.  When they don’t, you hopefully research or network.  Research and networking is the easy part, though it can be drudgery.  Writing isn’t.  Even when the words flow, you have to edit and rewrite and spellcheck and take care of so many details you at times get lost.  And every time I think I’m catching up, I find someone else to research and write about.  And listen to.  I went to a show just last Thursday as a followup to to the review I wrote about The Game Played Right‘s first ever show and review.  I found a band working out kinks and obviously on the right track, but I also found two new bands, 100 Onces and Marshburn, and the label to which they are signed which has a score of other bands to check out.  It never stops.  (Read my review of that show)

I don’t always get things right.  I know that.  But sometimes I don’t want to.  I am trying to get people to read what I write not because I write it but because the music deserves it.  I haven’t quite figured out how to do that yet.  I don’t know if I ever will, but I’m trying.  New tricks all the time, or at least tricks I have not yet tried.  Of the made-you-look variety.  Of the you-have-to-hear-this-or-lose-credibility ilk.  Of the you’re-an-asshole-if-you-don’t-at-least-listen persuasion.  I get messages from musicians all the time saying thank you for the review.  I tell them to thank me when somebody finds their music through something I’ve written.  Again, if a bear shits in the woods…

I’m always behind.  I live behind.  To give you an idea how far behind one can get, here is a list of reviews I need to have written, yesterday:

The Green Pajamas/Death By Misadventure…

Dala/Best Day…

Elephant Revival/Break In the Clouds…

Tom House/Winding Down the Road…

Tim “Too Slim” Langford/Broken Halo…

Hardin Burns/Lounge…

Lianne Smith/Two Sides of a River…

Wrinkle Neck Mules/All three albums

Rick Nelson/The Complete Epic Recordings

Caroline Herring/Camilla

Zoe Muth/Old Gold

Marshburn/Miss Spelled For Emphasis

and something tells me the list is incomplete.  Shee-it!  I’d better get to it.

Know what, though?  A lady once emailed me that she had just purchased Ruth Moody‘s The Garden for her sister.  The assumption was that she had read my review, of course, but we all know what they say about assuming.  Still, it made me feel good.  That is one beautiful album and if someone found it through my review, I’m good with it.

What I am not necessarily good with is the rambling nature of this column.  I have to accept it, though.  It is close to deadline time and I have nothing else prepared.  I promise that soon I will actually outline my columns so they make some sort of sense.  Promise.  Still, there is good news.  For instance, we have:

Notes…..    Too many people I trust are making noise about this lady so I’m afraid not to pay attention.  She pulled the rough tracks on Soundcloud I was going to link to, but this will give you an inkling.  Phoebe Bridgers doing a Dave Alvin tune.  Ah, wait a minute.  Here are the Soundcloud tracks on her FB page, I think.  Enjoy…..  A few people might remember me raving about a young girl named Sunday Lane.  Well, she has now teamed up with Jessy Greeneand will (if things go well) be performing with her as Fauntella Crow.  They have posted a demo on Soundcloud you might well want to check out.  Smo-o-oth…..  Normally, I’m not one to step beyond the boundaries of music, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the marriage of Zoe Muth to High Rollers’ drummer Greg Nies.  And here’s the thing.  They’ll be needing all the help they can get to get started.  Buy their albums.  You can find the new EP, Old Gold, last year’s album Starlight Hotel and the outstanding rookie effort Zoe Muth & The Lost High Rollers through Signature Sounds Records.  It’s good stuff…..  Sydney Wayser is no stranger to commercials.  Here is her latest for Madewell.  Good music is just good music sometimes…..  And it’s on the way.  Just yesterday, Research Turtles announced that the masters of Mankiller Pt. 2 have been sent out for production.  And the tensions build…..  Sometimes I feel like I’m sitting in a No Man’s Land when it comes to music, but that is slowly coming to an end.  Not long ago, I saw one of the best shows I’ve ever seen (by a band from Denmark called Alcoholic Faith Missioncheck out their new album here— it’s fantastic), I headed down to Eugene to catch all-time favorite Steve Young(having son Jubal Lee Youngthere as well was a bonus and a half) and now have a chance— three of them, actually— to see a band I have been curious about for some time— Lunic!  I tracked down and reviewed one of their albums some time ago and was quite taken by their upfront dual electric violins.  Not sure whether they still sport both violins, but they do sport one, for sure.  They are at the beginning of a pledge drive to help them tour, a missing link to many a band’s endgame (success).  These guys have been together for over six years, folks.  I guarantee you they are worth seeing and hearing.  They will be playing August 16th & 17th in Portland, Oregon and August 18th in Vancouver, Washington at Couvapalooza.  My heart, be still….

Frank’s column appears every Wednesday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”

 

5 Responses to “Frank Gutch Jr: Confessions of a Rock Critic (Or, I Hear Dead People)….”

  1. I ran a questionably successful Canadian music magazine in the 1990s. It was the equivalent to a monthly 64 page blog like the ones I write now…the difference is in how I treated music reviews then vs. how I treat them now. I had an axe to grind with the Canadian music industry (and still do, it seems). If I got review copies from the majors it was no-holds barred. If singer sounded smug or the guitarist was copping Eddie Van Halen it became a flaming pitch-fork of a review (long before there was a ‘Pitchfork’). I once gave 0 out of 5 stars to I, Mother Earth because it annoyed the hell out of me that the label was forcing fans to choose between one of three different coloured album jackets at retail. Yeah, I was an inconsolable prick (as opposed to the seasoned curmudgeon I now am). Indie acts got the benefit of the doubt unless it was pretentious, ego-driven tripe…then it was a 12 barrel enema of “you’ll never make it with this musical attitude” (oh, the irony).

    Now, like you, I review the good stuff…or at least try to find the good in everything that’s sent to me. People have poured there blood, sweat and tears into these albums and the least I can do is give them a voice to let the world know it’s out there. I can’t help them financially, but it costs nothing for me to promote them. So I do. I’ve been in those creative shows over 30 years. It’s someone child. A birth, an evolution, a moment of artistic clarity. I can’t even bring myself to toss old reviewed CDs away. It would break my heart if someone just tossed my efforts into the trash….so I sit on boxes of early releases from the ’80s and ’90s from artists that DID go on to be bigger, better more – Moxy Fruvous, Barenaked Ladies, and more.

    You’re doing it all for the right reasons, Frank. For the love. For the fix. For the small white flag artists are searching for in a desert of indifference. Keep at it. Someone’s buying those releases….and in no small part because they read your reviews.

    PS – My wife and I go to gravesites a LOT. It’s a twisted, unhealthy hobby. And not just celebrity ones. Why? Well, why do people look at old buildings, old cars, etc.? Because it’s history….oh, and dead people tell no lies (though their relatives do and often get birth & death dates wrong). Only at the Hollywood Forever cemetery in L.A. can you be in the presence of so many movie stars without having to go through their publicists or agents first. 🙂

  2. Wow…excuse my grammar and spelling. I think this writing stuff has gone to my head.

  3. Read for information. Not to say that all liked, and rock songs are not for me. I collect material about chanson, and I like to listen to Russian songs. Thank you and good luck.

  4. 739699 98375I dont normally take a look at these kinds of websites (Im a pretty shy person) – but even though I was a bit shocked as I was reading, I was certainly a bit excited as nicely. Thanks for giving me a big smile for the day 302354

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