In Their Own Write: Adventures in the Music Press

Paul Gorman (Sanctuary Publishing)

Mounting a history of that dysfunctional beast known as rock 'n' roll journalism is probably impossible. The field is plagued by self-aggrandizing guru-dom (hallo, Robert "Consumer Guide" Christgau), near-unintelligible academia-speak (Greil "Doctor of Letters" Marcus), perpetual grudge-holding (Richard "I Coulda Been a Contender" Meltzer), and even -- not to put too fine a point on it -- death (Lester Bangs), meaning that egos and revisionism hold sway over objective anecdotal reporting. But British author Paul Gorman, despite some comments along the lines of "this is no dust-dry account, nor it is a chin-stroking debate on 'whither the music press in the digital age?'", obviously wants his version of the rise and fall of the U.S. and U.K. music press from the late '50s to the present to be definitive.

It's not, of course, and the great irony surrounding In Their Own Write is that you'd think Gorman's literary format of choice -- the oral history -- would be tailor-suited to the subject. There are some loud, boisterous voices jostling to be heard on these 400 pages. To his credit, Gorman conducted interviews with scores of participants, from Meltzer, Greg Shaw and Lenny Kaye to such celebrated U.K. mavericks as Mick Farren, Tony Parsons and Vivien Goldman, additionally tapping secondary sources for quotes from more elusive personalities including Jann Wenner, Nick Kent and, er, Bangs.

The book's central flaw is the lack of expository narrative linking the quotes; only quirky subheadings break up the topics or eras. With a dizzying array of personalities and oftentimes overlapping time periods to juggle, readers unfamiliar with the original publications themselves (Creem, Bomp, Record Mirror, New Musical Express, etc.) won't get the requisite you-are-there feeling. The quotes read colorfully enough, particularly the segments on the fierce rivalries between the U.K. weeklies during punk's heyday. But the book is ultimately no more than a huge box of snapshots dumped onto the floor and then assembled into a more or less linear order.

Among the other drawbacks: The U.S. press gets short shrift after its '70s golden era, as if to suggest that Gorman was unaware there was a thriving fanzine underground in the '80s or (more likely) that he feels music writing is a spent force on these shores. There's not a single photo in the book; given the volume and velocity with which many of Gorman's subjects erupt, one would love to see if, for example, NME maverick Nick Kent, depicted along rail-thin, wasted-rock-star lines by his peers, fit the bill. (He did, by the way: See the photo accompanying a review of this book in the December issue of Uncut.) And the book's general attitude of "gee, we did lots of drugs and got away with murder!" consistently gets in the way of the reader determining how and why the music itself excited and motivated the writers. But hey, at least we know they all worked in "horrible" offices and that respected author Barney Hoskyns was a heroin addict.

In summary, better places to start your own inquiries would be Abe Peck's Uncovering the '60s: The Life and Times of the Underground Press, which provides context within which the music press would emerge; Robert Draper's Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History Book; and Jim DeRogatis' Lester Bangs bio Let It Blurt (neither are overviews but have terrific behind-the-scenes material), combined with rock criticism anthologies such as Meltzer's A Whore Just Like the Rest, Nick Kent's The Dark Stuff and Nick Tosches' The Nick Tosches Reader.

That said, as someone who's been involved in this business since the late '70s (I had my own punk fanzine), I couldn't put the book down. Like a highway accident, the bloody mess and all the body parts strewn hither and yon kept my eyes riveted.

 
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