Puff Peace

Normally, I love the hate.
There's nothing to jazz up a Muzak day like a spitting-mad New Times reader jabbering in my ear about the sacrilege of superimposing Barney the Dinosaur's head on Jerry Garcia's body. And any day I get to hear someone call Garth Brooks a musical genius is a day I go home smiling.

I keep a tape of hate-call highlights in my drawer for those need-a-laugh moments when the deadline hellhounds start to nip at my heels. The best call to grace my life thus far is the anonymous madman who took offense to my suggestion in a September 14 column on the MTV Video Music Awards that Mike Tyson should be sodomized by a rabid bull elephant. Eight nights straight he called me, always between 9 and 10; and eight nights straight he left the same message, like he was reading from a script. Here goes:

Yeah, I despise pugilism and rape and public sodomy by a rabid bull elephant. Shows what a sick deviant you are to actually put that into print. Plus, your rambling, superfluous diatribes of nothingness are as bad as [Peter] Gilstrap's. How do you guys get paid? You're no-talent dweebs.

Actually, both Gilstrap and I were hired under New Times' little-known but revolutionary "no-talent dweeb" program, in which we actually pay the paper to print diatribes (or, in Pete's case, Screeds).

But I digress. My point here is that, while I don't aim to piss off readers, I take a certain sick pleasure in dealing with them once they've lost their cool.

Most of the time.
Last week was an exception. I weathered a barrage of calls from readers incensed over a negative review of a CD by the local band Satellite. The review, by Jon Kinzler, was published in the "Desert Discs" feature on November 30. Nine people called, and none of them was fun to talk to. They were mad, and they also felt injured--hurt by the tone of the review, which singled out front man Stephen Ashbrook as the primary perpetrator of a release Kinzler judged to be inferior, to say the least.

Obviously, some of these people were Ashbrook's friends, and all of them were Satellite fans. (To be fair, two other callers said the review was dead on target.) Regardless, anytime I get that volume of response to a review or article, be it positive or negative, I do some serious contemplation.

First off, a correction is in order. Kinzler trashed Ashbrook for, among other things, "annoying guitar solos." All of the solos on Satellite's self-titled debut were performed notby Ashbrook, but by lead guitarist Christopher Whitehouse.

Other than that not-insignificant error, I have no problems with Kinzler's review. If I had, I wouldn't have run it. To clarify: On a personal level, I disagree with what he wrote--I don't think the disc is as bad as he says. As music editor, however, I don't impose my tastes upon the critics I work with. All I demand of them is that they be knowledgeable, that they carefully consider the impact of what they write, and that they judge a recording based on how close it comes to achieving what it set out to, rather than how closely it conforms to their personal tastes. In other words, it's not cool to be harsh on a metal recording simply because you hate metal. I am confident that, in this case, the critic met all of the above standards, and I stand by the review.

The reasoning of those who took issue with the Satellite write-up seemed to travel one of two paths: 1) that personal attacks have no place in a CD review, or 2) that I should not run negative reviews of local music.

Let me make my positions on both concerns clear: 1) New Times critics often single out members of a band for praise; why should they not do the same with criticism? 2) Unlike many--perhaps even most--music editors, I will not treat local music with kid gloves. If a band charges people to see it perform and puts a CD on the stands with a price tag, it is endeavoring to be a group of professional musicians and will be judged in these pages by the same standards as an established national act. Puff reviews do no one any good; they give the band a false sense of accomplishment and erode trust in the publication that prints them. While I am dedicated to supporting the Valley scene, I will not do it with false compliments.

That said, I urge you not to write off Satellite. The band's "church" services every Sunday night at Long Wong's are a hoot and a half (no cover, even). Besides, in the final analysis, a review of a recording is just one person's opinion. Just one person's knowledgeable, carefully considered opinion, but just one person's opinion nonetheless.

Intelligent readers of criticism are those who seek out critics whose standards are similar to their own, and use them as a guide. Likewise, intelligent readers will learn which critics they disagree with on a regular basis and disregard them. And so the only way to be an intelligent reader is to check things out for yourself. Blind trust is for fools.

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