Catching Up With... Joe Carducci

Music Features Joe Carducci
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Writer Joe Carducci dropped a bomb on the world of music non-fiction in 1991 with his sprawling, personal, dense-but-immensely-readable Rock and the Pop Narcotic. Not since Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock, Robert Christgau’s '70s record guide, or the various musings of Lester Bangs had rock writing so succeeded through the combination of pop-cultural literacy and strong opinion.

seminal works by Black Flag, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, The Descendents, Saint Vitus and Hüsker Dü all carried an SST logo. When it was published, Rock and the Pop Narcotic awarded a proper degree of intellectualization and heart to metal and hard rock during a time when these art forms were weathering an especially unfair phase of disinterest.

Carducci’s recently published Enter Naomi: SST, L.A., and All That… (Redoubt Press) will be endlessly compared to Rock and the Pop Narcotic. Instead of a highly-enjoyable, dense monster, Enter Naomi is a rather straightforward biography of three distinct subjects—deceased photographer Naomi Peterson (one of SST’s in-house photographers), SST itself and the underground L.A. music scene from 1975 until 1986.

Peterson’s story is the focus, a difficult and sad undertaking given that she had lost touch with her SST brethren, family and other friends as the '90s progressed. Peterson died from liver failure in 2003, and Carducci, along with many of her other old friends, didn’t find out until some time later. With invaluable help from Peterson’s brother Chris, Carducci was able to obtain Naomi’s journal entries and the work that comprises Enter Naomi’s transfixing photo section. It’s a must for readers interested in what was undoubtedly the most interesting phase of American underground rock.

Paste: What led you to conceive Rock and the Pop Narcotic? Were you driven to write about most of the '70s hard rock examples because many of the SST bands at the time were also exploring the world of known and unknown '70s hard rock acts, and as such, incorporating these sounds into their music?
Carducci: In 1986, when I conceived the book, I thought I had to write the bands of that era—'76-'86—into the history of rock 'n' roll. The rock media had sealed off punk rock from the stuff they really wanted to write about—commercially intended professional music. That first generation of rock critics seemed obsessed with proving to their English teacher or their parents that rock 'n' roll was legit, and '50s rock and roll, '60s garage rock, and '70s hard rock and punk rock were not going to help them do this. The record business and radio industry had managed to survive the end of Tin Pan Alley and the rise of rock 'n' roll, but it wasn’t clear to those writing about music what the industry had done to rock 'n' roll or what '60s hip media like Rolling Stone and FM radio had turned into. If fanzine writers had been more ambitious, I might not have bothered, because it was a big task and the book grew. SST had the best, most musical, most rock-hip bands going, so it’s not like anybody else writing about music had ever got that far beyond the show biz of music presentation on record or live.

Paste: How long did it take you to write Rock and the Pop Narcotic?
Carducci: I started reading for the book as soon as I left SST in March ’86, and finished the last bit of editing in December ’90. The last thing added was the quote from Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae which had just come out. She neglects to mention this in the rundown, in her second book, of how her first book surfaced; a reference in R&TPN does not count as “surfacing.”

Paste: Let’s look at SST when you were there. Do you feel that a small group of people could birth such a creative environment these days?
Carducci: It’s hard to tell in the moment, but musicians in some sense do what is there to be done. They have to work at it together so that the band develops its own unique tonal, rhythmic, melodic voice. Then they have to have been filled up, while young, with great music from before the moment they attempt to deduce something new from that material. It might be that there is less possible today than there was coming out of all that had been produced musically from 1955-'75. But because people began to come to punk for political reasons under the spell of the nihilism of the Velvet Underground, or Malcolm McLaren or the idealism of The Clash or Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll, there was a lot of fake music made for non-musical reasons. Just political noise with no connection to what had gone on earlier. This break with musical tradition was wrongly celebrated because it happened to be of some use in making the music seem legit to people who didn’t care about music per se.

Paste: Were you involved in the signing of Hüsker Dü? A lot of people don’t realize that they were SST’s first non-West Coast band. Were they SST’s biggest money-makers?
Carducci:sound. They saw Black Flag in Chicago in December '80 and I believe they returned to a more straight forward punk approach. I met them in early '81 while still at Systematic. They were looking for a label and I hooked them up with New Alliance. I moved down to SST and Hüsker got to know us by recording with Spot, and since the Minutemen and Saccharine Trust weren’t really touring bands, we were looking for another band that could go out. I suggested to Greg [Ginn] and Chuck [Dukowski] that Hüsker would be better than D.O.A. to sign. Bob [Mould] had led Greg to believe that they wanted to start their own label, but they knew SST was the best place to be, so they went for it. The (Black Flag) Damaged album was a phenomenon in L.A. in late '81/early '82, so nothing sold like that, which was about 70,000 copies and almost all in L.A. at that point. But by ’85, [ Hüsker Dü] was the best selling band on SST at about 40,000 [per album].

Paste: You cryptically hint in Enter Naomi that the SST/L.A. scene might have been unfriendly or alienating to women. Was this the case?
Carducci: You have to remember that everyone involved was resigned to, if not actively seeking, an early death. So the girls in a scene like ours in L.A. have to be considered something unusual. There was a certain practical lack of politesse about sex, but it wasn’t hostility. Naomi wasn’t looking to feel bad about herself; she was looking to get started doing something. I think she had it worse in high school, and girls had business responsibilities at SST as things got bigger.

Paste: Had you always wanted to write a book that incorporated L.A. history? [L.A. sociologist/writer] Mike Davis wrote the blurb on the back cover of Enter Naomi. Is he a big influence on your writing?
Carducci: I’d only read some short pieces of his when I began to do reading for Enter Naomi, so I read City of Quartz specifically for the book.

Paste: Was it a challenge to get Naomi’s family to cooperate in the book project?
Carducci: Her brother Chris made it easy. I wasn’t sure I could find them and it took a while to check out old addresses on a people-search website. I ran the drafts by him and he seemed initially surprised that I could write. And Chris thought very highly of his sister, so I think he is pleased that the story is out.

Paste: In the '80s, when you were around Naomi on a regular or semi-regular basis, did her drinking concern you? Were there plenty of other drinkers in that scene so as to draw attention away from her?
Carducci: Dave Chandler of Saint Vitus told me she’d drink beer with them, but if he didn’t know she had a drinking problem, maybe no one else knew either. Alcohol serves some purpose with women that I think is different and probably has to do with the face they maintain outside and even inside the home.

Paste: I know that you wrote an initial, smaller piece that evolved into the book, but exactly how long did you work on the book? Was the piecing together of the journal entries alternately laborious and painful?
Carducci: The short piece became the book pretty easily as I got access to the materials, and my ideas of placing her story in the era and L.A. came together. And the reading up on L.A. photography, alcohol, etc. filled in other things. It was physically laborious to decipher the calendars but there weren’t that many of them. I would have gladly done more work if there’d been more to look to at. It’s a privilege to be allowed to look at such material and be trusted to use my judgment on what to include. It was a unique project I don’t expect to repeat.

Paste: What do you consider the canon of entertainment/music/arts-based biography/non-fiction?
Carducci: For film, read Manny Farber’s Negative Space. For music, read Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues and the other books in my R&TPN bibliography that I asterisked. When you’re young, you are too influenced by what you read, but you read enough and you get your bearings and become a critical reader.

Paste: Which SST band do you consider to be the most underrated?
Carducci: They all are.

A beautiful reprint of Rock and the Pop Narcotic, Enter Naomi: SST, L.A., and All That…, plus several other works by Carducci, are available through:

Redoubt Press
P.O. Box 276
Centennial, Wyoming 82055

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