Anthony DeCurtis’s music journalism has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including the New York Times, Vibe, and Rolling Stone, where he is a contributing editor. The essay he wrote to accompany Eric Clapton’s Crossroads box set earned him a GRAMMY for “best album notes” and he’s a three-time winner of ASCAP’s Deems Taylor awards for excellence in writing about music.
DeCurtis has also written several books, including a collection of interviews with musicians, actors, directors and writers entitled In Other Words: Artists Talk About Their Life and Work, and the retrospective anthology of his work Rocking My Life Away. He is the co-author of Clive Davis’s autobiography The Soundtrack of My Life, and the author of the newly published biography Lou Reed: A Life. DeCurtis holds a PhD in American Literature and he teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Rumpus: How did you get your start as a music journalist?
Anthony DeCurtis: I’d always read a lot about rock ‘n’ roll growing up, but the first real thing I set out to do was become an English professor. Even so, I always hoped in some way or another that I would get to write about music in a popular (non-academic) format. I was in graduate school at Indiana University from 1974-79. When Patti Smith’s album Horses came out in 1975, she came to visit Bloomington to do a performance and I got to write about her.
Rumpus: Tell me more about that experience.
DeCurtis: I wrote an advance piece for the student newspaper and somehow I convinced the editor to also let me talk to her and Lenny Kaye. I had never really done anything like that before, I didn’t get much time, and I didn’t really know what I was doing! [Laughs]
Rumpus: Did they both sense that?
DeCurtis: Patti was very nice, actually they were both very friendly, but she was as high as anyone I’ve ever been around in my life, which is saying something. And, you know, I had no practical sense of how to do an interview so I latched onto the things I read about her that made sense to me and my own experience. I was a graduate student, so I spent about half of the time asking her about Rimbaud. I didn’t think to ask her what it was like to be a band on the road, or what she would like to speak about. I was trying to impress her I guess, so it was wrong in every conceivable way.
Rumpus: And yet you kept at it.
DeCurtis: Around the same time I also wrote another piece for the student paper about Sid Vicious when he murdered Nancy Spungen—but that was more of an op-ed, essentially a kind of defense of punk rock. My real start came at the end of ’78 when a friend of mine who’d been writing a weekly record review column for the town newspaper, which was called the Herald-Telephone (now the Herald-Times, thankfully), moved on, and suggested me as a replacement.
Rumpus: Do you remember your first review for the paper?
DeCurtis: Yes, it was a review of the first Cars album and then I was off to the races. Bloomington was a happening place back then, and I got to do some live reviews too. Early on I reviewed Sun Ra, Elvis Costello, and Dexter Gordon. I liked the immediacy of doing the column. Unlike academic writing, which is a long, drawn out process, when you wrote something for the paper, it came out right away and people started talking about it.
Rumpus: As you were just talking about the difference between academic writing and newspaper writing, another thing that struck me is the difference between doing reviews and interviews. When you’re reviewing it’s just you and the record. You’re listening and formulating opinions, but not necessarily anticipating that the artist will ever read them and react. But in interviewing you’re asking the artist about his or her work, and the dialogue is person-to-person. When and how did you get back into interviewing?
DeCurtis: I got a teaching job at Emory so I moved to Atlanta in ‘79. There was a lot happening there at the time—R.E.M. was just getting going, the B-52’s had just taken off, and I was freelancing about town. I started to get assignments from Record Magazine, which was published by Rolling Stone, and I was getting real interviews. To prepare, I started focusing more on what was going on in the rock press and getting people to stay stuff like that. More importantly, I learned how to step outside of myself. At first I think I’d had the “A” student problem—trying to impress my subject with how smart I was, how much I knew, how hard I had prepared, and what a big fan I was. But when I let them explain the music, it went much better.
Rumpus: How did you develop those skills?
DeCurtis: The questions became more and more simple and much more direct. And also just paying attention, really listening to your subject, looking for what might be interesting to them, and following up. You’re going to have certain things you want to get at, but you’re better off if you play to people’s strengths a bit. You’re also assessing how it’s going and adjusting as needed. Does your subject seem up for it, willing to do it, and is he or she enjoying the interview? Or do they need to be coaxed, or reassured, or whatever they might need from you? Like writing, interviewing is a process that you keep learning, and you’re always trying to get better and better.
Rumpus: In some senses you’re a proxy for your reader, anticipating what they want to know about your subject, but you’re always going to see more than you can show them. How do you negotiate what to include, or exclude, and when to just walk away from the interview entirely because the subject isn’t participating or is in no condition to participate?
DeCurtis: I’d say the vast majority of my interview experiences have been pleasant, better than pleasant. But sometimes there will be people who will size you up. There can be that “rock star” thing where they think it’s cool to pull back.
Rumpus: Do you think it’s a generational issue? Are older, more established artists conditioned to be elusive whereas younger artists are pressured to appear accessible?
DeCurtis: Well, not necessarily. I think younger artists are often “students” of the rock press. They have their favorite rock star interviews and know how they’re supposed to act. But I find that time helps a lot. If you have enough time you can sort of break that down just by being a normal person. And then they realize the interview isn’t just a performance, and they can actually speak to you. I often try to get people into a space where they’re not over-thinking what they’re talking about and instead they’re speaking emotionally, from within their experience.
Rumpus: Can you recall a specific example where that came through?
DeCurtis: I might ask about the first time they heard a song that they really responded to, like when I asked Mos Def when he first “got” hip-hop and he went into this memory about how hearing someone rap really affected him. He wasn’t simply remembering the event. It was almost like he was occupying that space again. When you can really transport an interview subject like that, your readers can feel it and it helps them to connect with the artist.
Rumpus: This is a good segue to talking about Lou Reed because he’s someone who didn’t generally like interviews, and consequently he was known as a notoriously “difficult” interview subject.
DeCurtis: That’s true. It can be nerve wracking if you walk into the interview and you’re not sure what to expect—
Rumpus: For sure. And now I’m also thinking specifically about someone like Terry Gross, who was a big fan of Lou Reed’s. She tried to get him on Fresh Air forever, and when she finally got him to say yes, it flopped. He walked out in the middle of the interview because he clearly didn’t want to be there. That can happen any time, but I think it’s so much worse if you’re a big fan. Is the oft-repeated cliché that you should never meet your idols true?
DeCurtis: With Lou it was characterological. It had nothing to do with Terry or the many other smart and devoted interviewers who tried to talk to him and he blew off. I’ve given this a lot of thought because it was such an aspect of him and something that didn’t really make any sense. You know, it’s fine for Michael Bolton not to like rock critics because he’s a pop artist with a lot of fans, so if rock critics don’t like him, fuck them. But for Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, critics saved them, kept them alive. So why did the switch flip where you might go from being grateful to being resentful?
Rumpus: What are your thoughts on this?
DeCurtis: Lou had some run-ins with journalists in the 70s and stuff, but I think for the most part the change was after he got clean. Some of the early interviews were wild. He would talk about things that even back then rock stars wouldn’t speak about, and ultimately he became embarrassed about it. He was very concerned about control, and having been out of control to that degree humiliated him. So if he heard somebody go, “Gee, back in 1979 you said…” what he heard was, “You were as high as could be and didn’t even know what you were talking about…” I think that’s why he ended up talking about equipment a lot. By their nature, technical things are devoid of emotional content.
Rumpus: Ah yes, the gear, that’s a common strategy. But you knew Reed socially, and he was fond of your work. Did that make it easier for you to access him emotionally?
DeCurtis: We got along. We were both New Yorkers—I grew up in Greenwich Village and was familiar with a lot of the worlds he moved in. And though he’d never admit this, I think it meant something to him that I had a PhD in literature. And, you know, the other thing is I think he trusted me. The photographer Mick Rock was a long-time friend of Lou’s—they’d been introduced by David Bowie back in ’72, and Mick took the photo for the cover of Transformer and a million other pictures of Lou over the years. Bowie once said about Mick, “He sees me the way I see myself,” and I think that’s how Lou felt about me.
Rumpus: Did he know that you might write a book about him one day?
DeCurtis: I wasn’t working on the book when he was alive. My friendship with him meant something to me, and it would have been too hard because he wouldn’t have wanted it done. But after he died publishers expressed interest in having me write about him, and I thought about it and it did seem like something he deserved. Like James Atlas’s biography of Delmore Schwartz, I wanted to write the kind of serious book that’s been written about literary figures, the kind of book Lou would have read.
Rumpus: Were you concerned that people might want you to omit certain information?
DeCurtis: No one tried to get in my way, or ask me to leave anything out. Laurie [Anderson] kept a benign distance. She didn’t tell people not to talk to me or try to stop the book, but she also made it clear she didn’t want to be involved, which meant she wouldn’t have control over what I did or didn’t write about. I tried to take the same approach to Lou that he took to the characters he wrote about- a combination of distance and empathy.
Rumpus: How did you manage your own feelings, investments, and expectations about him?
DeCurtis: Look, Lou did some pretty reprehensible things, but I didn’t want to stand in judgment of them. I wanted to present them clearly along with all of the good things about his life.
Rumpus: So you took the same approach, presenting the highs and lows, when it came to talking about his music?
DeCurtis: I did, and to some extent his life and music are intertwined. For example, Berlin portrays some pretty grisly stuff, and it got some really spiteful reviews. Lou did try to talk about it, like asking, “Do you really need an album to tell you not to beat up your girlfriend?” In Othello, Othello kills Desdemona, but no one reads that play as a model for their own behavior. In Lou’s case, you’re listening to a song, and in my case you’re reading about a life. Like Lou, I trust my audience to make their own moral determinations.
Rumpus: Some other artists disavow any relationship between their lives and the songs they write. Did Reed allow that he drew creatively from his lived experience?
DeCurtis: Well, he would go back and forth on that. He was aware of the Lou Reed persona, which was an invention to a large degree. But on the other hand he would clearly draw from his own experience and confess to that, though he certainly didn’t hesitate to change or add or subtract details if it made for a better song. The autobiographical impulse in Lou was very strong, especially in his work up until the 80s.
Rumpus: What changed after that?
DeCurtis: After he got clean, he started looking outward and writing about bigger subjects—the New York album, for example, which was about a larger set of issues about a city he loved and drew on for his work (1989), or collaborating with John Cale on Songs for Drella about Andy Warhol (1990), or working on Magic and Loss (1992), which was a kind of meditation on mortality. I think he was able to look at these big issues independent of his own circumstances because his head was clearer.
Rumpus: Wow, as you were talking about his discography, I was thinking about how album-centered his work is, and how closely it tracks with things that were happening in his life and the broader world around him. Today young artists are under a lot of pressure to put out new singles all of the time. Arguably that’s done harm to the concept of an album, and maybe the arc of a career too. I’m wondering—has it also complicated the work of the music journalist/biographer?
DeCurtis: There are a lot of ideas packed into what you just said! With respect to writing, when I broke into music journalism it wasn’t easy but there was more of an established path. I wanted and was able to have a grown-up person’s job with a real salary writing for a fairly sizable audience about stuff I cared about. When you’re starting out, you try to get as much experience as you can so people will see your work, and maybe start giving you the assignments you want, and paying you (hopefully both). And if you’re lucky you land someplace where you can stay for a while. But today that’s a trickier trajectory to envision.
Rumpus: Has it changed the way you teach students?
DeCurtis: When I started teaching, I would get miffed if a student asked me to write him or her a recommendation for law school—I’d feel like that’s not what we were doing in the course. But now I see that person as someone who might be gainfully employed. I bring in a lot of people to speak to my classes, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve expanded the type of guests I invite to include people both inside and outside of the traditional publishing world.
Rumpus: But even within the established music press, I find it’s often the case that artists have publicists, media training, and talking points, all aimed at generating pre-release buzz for singles they expect to have a very short shelf life. At the same time, music journalists are clamoring to be first to go out with whoever and whatever is next, not necessarily going deep with an artist who could have a lasting influence. If this generation produced a talent like Lou Reed, would we be able to identify and support the value of that artist’s work?
DeCurtis: Yes. If a musician cares about what he or she is doing, and you show up and care, you can go some place. That will never change. There are a number of ways to approach this, and my favorite is the way we’re doing it now—just talking.
Rumpus: That’s a very valid point. Perhaps going back to what Bowie said about Mick Rock, your ideal situation is to meet each other on terms where you can have an authentic dialogue. You’re also the co-author of an autobiography of the music impresario Clive Davis. How is collaborating with a subject on an autobiography different than working solo on a biography?
DeCurtis: They’re very different. Clive went to Harvard Law School. He knows how to write a sentence. We passed chapters back and forth, we were both in there fully, and that was our process. But in the end I thought of Clive’s book as Clive’s book, and I felt like my job was to help create the version of his life he wanted to portray.
Rumpus: Whereas for Reed it’s another kind of dialogue?
DeCurtis: For the Reed book, of course there were smart editors, and I collaborated with them as I wrote it, but it’s my book about Lou. The book reflects me one hundred percent.
All photographs courtesy of Anthony DeCurtis.
This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.