Archive for Byron Coley

On Pitchfork, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s “Fishing for Fishies,”and the Death of Rock Criticism

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2019 by johnbuckley100

Australia’s King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard were last heard from at the very end of 2017 when they just barely got Gumboat Soup , their fifth album of that strenuous year, out the door. It was pretty good, and so were stretches of the previous four recs that year, but I doubt that, ten years hence, any of us will play any of those albums from start to finish.

Yesterday King Gizzard returned with Fishing for Fishies – a fun, occasionally beautiful, sometimes even profound album built around blues forms including a repeating boogie motif. For a ridiculously prolific band to have slowed down and recorded an album constructed upon a foundation of well-considered songs — and not just treat us to their let-the-tapes-roll jams — was cause for celebration.

Those morons at Pitchfork rated it a 4.8 and slagged the entire effort.

There’s a lot to say about this, but let’s start here. We viewed this event — Pitchfork, which has become the online reviewer of record, showing off their faux sophistication by condemning an effort by a cult band to produce a commercially viable, long-lasting album; sneering at a career move that would see the band seeking to be considered as something other than astonishing, amusing freaks whose mark is laid by stunts — as symbolic of the sorry state of rock criticism in Annos Domini 2019.

Time was when rock criticism, as a form of writing, was as exciting as the fiction writing of its day, as important as the non-fiction novel, the New Journalism. When Lester Bangs, R. Meltzer or John Mendelsohn could write a review or a feature with prose every bit as wild and exciting as the Flamin’ Groovies, Little Feat or T. Rex album they were loving or hating. When in the New York Times, John Rockwell or Robert Palmer were expanding our horizons by telling us how the nexus between Philip Glass and Brian Eno heralded a deepening of rock’s importance or how last night’s show at CBGB by Talking Heads was the most exciting development since Television played there the month before. When Byron Coley in New York Rocker or Roy Trakin in the Soho Weekly News, when Tom Carson in the Voice or Charles Shaar Murray in NME alerted us to a band that would change our lives.

We admit that when we wrote for New York Rocker, Soho News, the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, we attempted to combine both critical insight with lively prose, because we knew that rock writing was as much a performance art as the music that gripped our soul.

There are a number of reasons why rock writing these days is an arid landscape. The first is the decline of the New York Times; under Jon Pareles and his editors, they moved away from their essential role in telling us what bands in New York City were contributing to the culture. I mean, Brooklyn as a locus of bands circa 2008-2019 is as worthy a “scene” — to use a word editor Bob Christgau used to strip from my prose — to cover as the Summer of Love in San Francisco or the punk era in Lower Manhattan and London. And yet the Paper of Record has virtually ignored it. (In the breach arose Brooklyn Vegan, but I can’t name a single writer from that site, and I used to know every one of the NYT’s stable of writers.) Instead the Times provides the occasional listicle in its worthless Sunday Arts and Leisure section, usually letting us know about the catholic tastes of its writers, but never actually letting them, you know, write.

For a while there, Spin was an important publication, but its decline under the soap opera that was Bob Guccione Jr. unfortunately limited its tenure. Fortunately, from the consistently excellent, if limited, British magazine Uncut we have learned about dozens of bands we might otherwise never have discovered, and while they tend to grant every album they review a minimum rating of 7 out of 10 — a sort of Lake Woebegone “everyone is special” lack of critical seriousness — at least, over the past decade, they’ve alerted us to, oh, only Kelley Stoltz, Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, etc.

Which brings us to Pitchfork. Every album review they publish is as dry as a Mojave declivity. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at a single sentence contained therein. They review rock’n’roll albums with less passion than Car and Driver forced to compare the latest minivans.

And so: the nadir of rock writing is their punishing King Gizzard & the Lizard for the sin of trying to actually produce a single album that has meaning, rather than simply recording, live-to-tape, their studio all-nighters.

The decline of rock criticism is a little understood portent of the decline of Western Civ, but if you want to know where it has all gone wrong, read Pitchfork and despair.

Bob Christgau’s 13,000 Record Reviews

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on April 6, 2013 by johnbuckley100

Thanks to a tweet from Jack Shafer, who knows a thing or two about brilliant curmudgeons, we came across this wonderful interview in the Nieman Reports with former Village Voice rock crit nonpareil Robert Christgau.  Christgau is not *just* a brilliant rock critic who, since the 1960s, has turned a clear eye and a finely chiseled pencil toward rock’n’roll music, he is also an editor who, over his long tenure at the Voice, edited dozens, if not hundreds of writers, improving the quality of their prose and their critical thinking.  We count ourselves fortunate to have written for Christgau, and have never known an editor who was so willing to challenge every word choice, so likely to take a gleaming scythe to cliche.  He was a somewhat frightening, incredibly committed, ultimately warm person under whose tutelage many a young writer improved his or her chops.

As a writer, Christgau is in a different league from other great rock critics of the age.  Seems to us, the best rock critics have come in one broad category or another.  There are writers, such as Lester Bangs or Byron Coley, who have imbued their writing about the music they love with a stylistic freedom that essentially matches the energy of the music, with verbal riffs and broken rules that are the equal of the best fiction stylists.  And then there are other, not necessarily more serious writers who do something every bit as important and thrilling: they apply their critical facilities and writing precision to taking the medium of rock’n’roll music seriously enough to write about it as an art form on a plane with the most important writing, or painting, or yeah, classical music.  Christgau is the latter, a man who is moved, essentially, to write about the music that stirs his soul, but with the seriousness and formalism he believes it deserves.  The Bangs and Coley approach is maybe more fun to read, and those who pull it off, or even try it, are certainly a dying breed, but the Christgau approach is thrilling in its own right because the prose is so carefully wrought, if you are a serious reader, or an aspiring writer, it produces chills up the spine.  Christgau could always convey his passion for the music, which is a lost art, if you are to measure the current state of rock criticism as the distance between the unfunny in-joke self-references and bad writing of the New York Times crew under Jon Pareles’ disastrous reign and the snarky showoffism of the Pitchfork writers, most of whom score a 2.8 on scale of whether they actually like rock’n’roll music.

In the interview, Christgau make some points we greatly enjoyed.  Below is a teaser.   If you want to get a sense of the man, go to the story and read it for yourself.

Can you talk a little bit about how age impacts your work? Rock ‘n’ roll is considered a young man’s game.

It’s not. An enormous number of really good records are being made by people over 50, 60 and even 70. Because it was once the music of youth, it is now the only popular music that I know of that’s ever really addressed aging as a major issue in one’s life, the only one. It’s not the music of youth. In fact, for various formal reasons, good records by people under 30 are becoming more and more unusual.

What Sasha Frere-Jones Gets Right, And Wrong, In His Rare Miss On Bowie

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2013 by johnbuckley100

It is unusual for Sasha Frere-Jones to use his bully pulpit in The New Yorker to resist committing to a strong point of view, but when he finished his review of Bowie’s The Next Day with a taunt that “the bar rats can fight it out” over the exact status of the album among Bowie’s canon — declaring it “a fine rock record that is a few hairs away from being among his best,” and that “even the obsessives should be able to accept that” — we were disappointed.

Disappointed because Frere-Jones is, like Jon Mendelsohn, Lester Bangs, R. Meltzer, and Byron Coley before him, among the only voices in the rock criticism of his era that really matter.  While he does not write with anywhere near the pyrotechnical verve of any of these likely mentors, his perch exists at a time where Americans are given the dreary choice between reading the idiots at Rolling Stone, the even bigger idiots who labor under Jon Pareles’ Fidel-like reign at the formerly authoritative New York Times, and the onanistic closed loop in the bell jar that is Pitchfork.  Though it must be acknowledged that Ken Tucker at NPR has a wonderful sensibility, Frere-Jones may be the only main-market rock critic who really has an impact.

So yes, we were disappointed because the passive distancing of “a few hairs away from being among” Bowie’s best violates every rule of resistance to gainsaying, to soft pronouncements,  that we were taught, lo those many years ago, by Andy Schwartz, the great editor of NY Rocker, where we were once a young pup (along with Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, the aforementioned Coley, Glen Morrow, and others.)

If you want to say the album isn’t so good, say it, Sasha.  And if you want to say it’s great, say that.  If it’s somewhere in between?  Find a way of committing to exactly where it stands, without weasel calibrations like “a few hairs away from among his best.”

But that’s not the point of this post, a rare criticism of Frere-Jones.  In his review, Frere-Jones holds up Bowie’s under-appreciated 2002 album Heathen as a “magnificent” collection “with fewer good songs than The Next Day (though) a more cohesive marriage of electronic textures and traditional guitar work, and Bowie was in robust voice.  Bowie and (producer Tony) Visconti worked on that together, and it’s difficult to understand how they could have been so in synch with the moment then but not now.”  So, score a point for Sasha that the production on The Next Day does have that brittle 1980s sound that makes so many of the good albums from that epoch unlistenable today.  And he is right that Heathen, as well as the half-decent follow-up Reality, have a less bombastic, arch sound.  But come on: two of the three best songs on Heathen were written by Black Francis, as if Bowie was so out of it in the 1980s that he only picked up on the Pixies’ genius a decade later.

As between 1) having a production that sounds too much like the ’80s, but a series of great, fresh songs, and 2) a smooth sound set amidst a songwriting dry spell that necessitates having to dip into Black Francis’ bag for inspiration, we’ll take the former.  Frere-Jones is right that the production on The Next Day weakens it, but his inability to commit to what he thinks about it, leaving it to the “bar rats” to decide how good it is, is an abdication of his responsibility.  If an artist played it as safe as he does in his review, we hope he would excoriate them for it.

White Denim’s “D” And How Don Van Vliet’s Band Fared In Probate

Posted in Music with tags , , , on June 11, 2011 by johnbuckley100

Thirty seconds into “It’s Him” on White Denim’s new album, D, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Devendra Banhart inherited The Magic Band from Captain Beefheart. “To Byron Coley, Mr. Van Vliet left his ashtray heart. And to Mr. Banhart, he left his cassette player, his top hat, and his band.”

“Southern Prog” is how some have termed the expansion of White Denim from a trio to a double-axe murdering foursome, but this isn’t progrock.  This is sweet pop music rehearsed in Tex Watson’s garage, after an afternoon sipping jimson weed tea. Yes, the reference to The Minutemen is apt, but less so on D than anything that came before it. The addition of the perfectly named Austin Jenkins on second guitar doesn’t make it “Southern,” though having an additional guitarist adds a formalism to the rehearsed-within-an-inch-of-its-life machinery.  And when we say pop music, not Southern Prog, we mean that White Denim seem slightly closer in spirit to neighbor Jack White’s buddy Brendan Benson than to Duane and Dicky jamming with the Flaming Lips.  Moreover, progrock as a reference point only counts if a band like Citay can be thrown into this particular patch of prickly pear.

We did not expect ever to want to play a White Denim album for company, for they’ve previously been headphone stalwarts, guaranteed to clear a room waiting for the PTA meeting to start.  Yet D is such a tour de force we could see it entertaining a Mensa convention while anyone who ever loved Clear Spot could tap her feet and nod.  This is music for a late-night drive to the border, music to be played after that all-nighter as the sun rises over the Salton Sea.  More immediately, this is music to play as our Summer ’11 anthem.

A Proper Send Off To Don Van Vliet

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 18, 2010 by johnbuckley100

When we read that Captain Beefheart had died, we wrote our friend Byron Coley, who had introduced us to his work ’round about 1976.  (Yeah, we were late.) Here’s the reply, which does tend to wipe that bad New York Times moron-obit writing taste right outta our mouths:


yeah, the news traveled fast. best to you this season, as well.

here’s what i wrote to my little newsgroup.

although he was reportedly felled by complications from his long-standing condition of MS, i offer an alternate theory — he was killed by trying to read that recent, endless, infernal john french book, through the eyes of magic. that book was enough to kick almost anyone over the edge. guh.

but it’s rotten news, what can you say? beefheart has been one of my own hallmarks of friendship and brotherhood since trout mask came out in ’69. after that rolling stone cover feature me & my friends almost all decided to dip in. but very few could stand the heat of the weird water. we who tried to figure it out, even though we were only 13, 14, 15, have proven to be my best friends ever over the years. and the fact that i was known as a beefheart expert was the reason i got my first paid writing gig — interviewing beefheart in ’78 for new york rocker. things might have gone very differently in my life without beefheart. from the girlfriends i swayed to with clear spot in ’73, to the many shows i saw and the many weirdos i met via them. so many of my best pals were quiet fanatics for the doc. it was never worth making noise about because so few understood. but, just as syd barrett fanhood was a path to lasting friendship in the early ’70s, so beefheart-ism remained, even through the relatively ‘mersh tours of the later ’70s.

anyone who doesn’t miss the guy is suffering from a profound misunderstanding of underground musical culture. or is an architect.

as don once told me, “an architect is someone who wants to crawl up yr penis, pull down the shades and type all night.”

so long, sir. you made this planet a whole hell of a lot more bearable for weirdos. and here’s to you.

byron coley

On The Moral Stance Of Spiritualized’s “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on December 12, 2009 by johnbuckley100

Longtime readers of Tulip Frenzy may know that we don’t think the glorification of heroin by rock bands is cool.  We love Wilco, but we’ve never been sure whether Jeff Tweedy is trying to praise smack or bury it, before it buries him.  So how, you may ask, can we believe, as we do, that Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is one of the great albums of the ’90s, worthy of its recent multi-CD relaunch?  After all, doesn’t its greatest song, “I Think I’m Falling In Love,” play as one long, enticing nod?

“Sun so bright that I’m nearly blind
Cool cos I’m wired and I’m out of my mind
Warms the dope running down my spine
But I don’t care ’bout you and I’ve got nothing to do
Free as the warmth in the air that I breathe
Even freer than dmt
Feel the warmth of the sun in me
But I don’t care ’bout you and I’ve got nothing to do
Love in the middle of the afternoon
Just me, my spike in my arm and my spoon
Feel the warmth of the sun in the room
But I don’t care ’bout you
And I’ve got nothin’ ”

Well, maybe.  “Cop Shoot Cop” begins with the lyrics, “There’s a hole in my arm where the money goes.”  And when listened to as a whole, the album is one of the most devastating portraits of the dislocation and loss that comes from chemical dependency I can think of.  There’s the vertiginous feel of someone about to plunge off the bridge, life over, nothing left.  It does not paint a warm picture of junkiedom.

In fact, one of the reasons it’s so powerful is because of the lack of ambiguity about smack.  Jason Pierce is as famously louche as Keith Richards, without the latter’s Devil-sold constitution, but in this regard he is more of an object lesson than an exemplar.  Whereas when Tweedy sings, and all the kids singalong, “All I need is a shot in the arm,” and “There’s something in my veins/bloodier than blood,” I’m not sure the audience gets that this is not a good thing.

Why is the official moral stance of Tulip Frenzy to condemn ambiguity about heroin use?  Well, we’ve never forgotten our friend Byron Coley’s letter to the paper we worked for, The Soho Weekly News, when around August 1979 it showed a young blond woman on the cover with a straw and a line of white powder and the headline, “Now Heroin.”  And Byron wrote in a letter to the editor words to the effect of, “Your audience doesn’t have the critical sensibility of, say, readers of Foreign Affairs, and when they see you holding out heroin as chic, they may take the bait.   And this is what happened to Charlie Parker and others, some of whom died, and the rest got buried.”

Fans of hip British rock bands do not necessarily have the sensibilities of readers of Foreign Affairs.  Ambiguity about heroin can send exactly the wrong message to the vulnerable.  Spiritualized’s epic album may, to some, send a signal that heroin is cool.  I actually think it is a glorious, beautiful reminder that it just completely isn’t, that squalor ensues, that raggedness and a loss of humanity proceed the reckoning, if you’re lucky enough to survive and have one.

Austin Get Ready: First Communion After Party Is Playing SXSW

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on February 25, 2009 by johnbuckley100

Ah, I still remember my first communion after party: all the seven-year olds swimming on a bright May Sunday, school almost out, summer near.  Maybe we saw God, but probably not the way First Communion After Party does.  These guys are maybe the best neo-psychedelic band to have emerged in recent years, which when you think about it, is saying something.  If they set their amps up in a Catholic church parking lot, the Warlocks and Black Angels would put down their bingo cards and listen.  They’re that good.

If Byron Coley isn’t a charter member of the FCAP fan club, I’ll give up music for Lent.  See, they’ve got this Grace Slick/Marty Balin, Exene/John Doe thing going on vocals.  The guitarists have spent a lot of time listening to the 13th Floor Elevators.  I’ve seen an interview in which they deftly eschew the comparisons to the Brian Jonestown Massacre, but admit to getting their noses into the same batch of altar wine: Spaceman 3, Spiritualized, the Darkside, that whole tribe.

Austin get ready, these guys are going to be the biggest thing hitting SXSW other than the premiere of the film The Least of Me (which has a simultaneous premiere at, FYI.)  If you want a little taste right now, go to the iTunes Store and download Sorry for All The Mondays and To Those Who Can’t Sing, which is either the best album title I’ve heard in a while or the worst, I can’t decide.  I do know this: if my First Communion After Party had sounded like this, I might have kept the faith.

Why Sasha Frere-Jones Really Is A Great Rock Critic

Posted in Music with tags , , , on July 9, 2008 by johnbuckley100

If you are someone who, like me, gags each and every time you read the wooden prose of Jon Pareles, wherein he talks about “Mr. Reed’s guitar vamps,” etc. it really is a delight to read Sash Frere-Jones in The New Yorker.  Yeah, he’s a little full of himself.  Name a really great rock critic who isn’t?  From John Mendelssohn to Byron Coley, Lester Bangs to Robert Palmer, the best rock critics have always made one step back, laugh, and go “What the…”  And Frere-Jones has the gift.  I hadn’t listened closely to the drums on Led Zep’s “Good Times, Bad Times” for years until Frere-Jones, writing about the reunion concert last autumn, shined the spotlight on the late John Bonham’s polyrhythmic perversity.   And then came his preview of the Feelies/Sonic Youth show in New York last week.  Here’s how he described the link between the two bands: “To be wildly reductive about the whole thing: the Feelies are the logical extension of the breakneck strumming in the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On,” while Sonic Youth are the logical extension of Lou Reed’s solo.”  That is so good that if ever The New Yorker casts him out onto Times Square, look for Tulip Frenzy to host an online bake sale, just to keep the boy going.

Thurston Moore and Byron Coley’s “No Wave”

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on June 2, 2008 by johnbuckley100

Thurston Moore and Byron Coley have just published a gloriously scuzzy high-end artbook cum conversation among the participants of New York’s No Wave subculture, which existed in the blink of a crusted eye between 1976 and 1980. 

The difference between historians Thurston Moore & Byron Coley and Edward Gibbon is that Gibbon didn’t have documentary photos of Rome’s decline and fall.

The difference between archaeologists Thurston Moore & Byron Coley and Walter Alva is that when Alva unearthed those Sipan tombs, none of the mummies could speak in whole sentences about what life was like in the Moche heyday.

They’ve done a really good job of letting the participants speak for themselves (thank you, ur-historian George Plimpton for producing “Edie” lo those many years ago), while ransacking the NY Rocker photo vault for some great black and white pics.

I arrived in New York too late for Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and I never really liked Mars and DNA, though I admit to having enjoyed the Contortions (at least for the novelty, and from the back of the room, where it was safe.)  I got there just in time for 8 Eyed Spy, though, and because Byron was incredibly generous in introducing his fellow Hampshire College grad (that would be me) to Andy Schwartz at NY Rocker, I think my very first published review, entitled “Love for Lydia,” was of one of their early shows at Max’s.

Byron was the coolest person any of us knew, and still is.  When he says in the author’s bio here that he was the “resident editor” of NY Rocker, it’s an in-joke — he actually lived in the offices at Fifth Avenue and 23rd in late ’78 or so.

This brings it all back, and does so really intelligently.  It’s Moore’s and Coley’s insight that New York was never really about punk, but always about art rock.  That’s right, and very smart.  The narrative, if that’s what it is, of “No Wave” is built on the story of how two sets of multiple bands — one from the East Village, the other from Soho and points south and west of Houston and Broadway — got essentially pared down for history by Brian Eno choosing only the aforementioned four — Mars, DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and the Contortions — for his “No New York” sampler.  Eno undefensively tells the tale of kismet that led to that record, including a wonderful sense-making detail about the cover: the reason all the bands showed up as individual pictures was he was influenced by the wanted posters for the Baader-Meinhof Gang!  Those were the days.

Anyone could pull together a compilation of the CBGB bands like Blondie and the Ramones and Television and the Talking Heads.  Possibly no two other people — okay, Chris Nelson and Andy Schwartz — could have pulled together “No Wave.” Not just because of the cred needed to get all factions to participate, but just the very sensibility needed to try!

I arrived in New York for good (until I moved four years later) in 1979, and by that time the half life of a movement was over.  That didn’t bother me, for there was still lots going on in ’79, including the first sightings of Thurston Moore on the way to his forming Sonic Youth.  Besides, I liked bands that played rock’n’roll — the Fleshtones, the DBs, etc.  But many of the second-gen No Wave bands, from the Raybeats to the Bush Tetras, gave us plenty of fine nights at Tier 3, followed, as Byron remembers, by egg creams at Dave’s on Canal.  This book brings it all back.  

Go buy it before books themselves go the way of Tier 3 and Dave’s Luncheonette.

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