The Curmudgeon: Thin-Skinned Artists

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Back in 1979, I began a Washington Post concert review of The Eagles like this: “The wide gap between the Eagles’ enormous popularity and their negligible talent has long been a show-business paradox. The group’s show at the Capital Centre Sunday night only confirmed that contradiction. The sellout crowd gave ovations to the thinnest of harmonies and the most ordinary of solos. The show opened with ‘Hotel California,’ which featured an arrangement of four guitars strumming the same rhythm chords. This droning went on so long that when the merely average guitar solos by Don Felder and Joe Walsh finally came, they sounded exciting by comparison.”

A few days later an editor called me to say The Eagles’ managers were so furious about the review that they were threatening to ban the Washington Post from any future shows. Well, the Post is not easily bullied, and those threats soon faded away. But I was puzzled by the reaction. The band had just sold out a basketball arena in a tour of such sold-out arenas. Their tour buses were driving home stuffed with money, and my little bit of naysaying was not going to dent their money-making machine in the least. Why were they so upset?

It was my first lesson that even the biggest rock stars can have the thinnest skin. No matter how many records they sell, no matter how many concert tickets they sell, no matter how many positive reviews they receive, they harbor a secret doubt that they don’t deserve any of it, that they have fooled the world. And if you give public voice to that hidden fear, they will lash out at you all out of proportion to your actual influence. If you suggest that a band has watered down its original, roots country-rock sound to soft-rock Pablum in a quest for stardom, they will attack you even if their strategy worked as intended. It’s as if they were willing to trade artistic integrity for stardom, and when they got the stardom, they denied that the trade had happened.

Of course, these are problems that every longtime music journalist has dealt with. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau and the New York Times’ John Rockwell, for example, were lucky to be immortalized by Lou Reed’s vicious, verbal attacks on them during his 1979 live album, Take No Prisoners. And the poor British reporters who tried to ask questions of Bob Dylan during the Don’t Look Back movie were rewarded with sneering taunts by the insecure, 23-year-old performer.

Even up-and-coming acts are plagued by this insecurity. Earlier this month I was scheduled to interview the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard for a feature story in Paste. Two days before the interview, the publicist emailed to say the band was canceling the interview because they hadn’t liked something Paste had written the week before. Now this wasn’t something I had written; it wasn’t even something another music critic had written. It was one paragraph in a review the TV critic had written of a Saturday Night Live episode that featured the Alabama Shakes.

“’Don’t Wanna Fight’ and ‘Gimme All Your Love’ may be fine songs,” Chris White wrote of the Shakes’ appearance, “but neither tune brings the kind of musical energy a Saturday Night Live performance requires. Musicians have to bring more than earnest virtuosity to their performances—they have to deliver a terrific pop song, something so singable, danceable and/or fun that you want to go out about buy the album. You know, like we all did two years ago when the band played ‘Hold On.’”

Compared to what I had written about the Eagles, for example, this is very mild criticism indeed. White is saying that the new songs are good but not as great as the band’s best songs. For this they burned bridges with a magazine that had supported them from the beginning? In my own gushing, 2012 cover story, for example, I wrote, “You don’t want anything to go wrong with this band, because they’ve come so far so quickly and have such a promising road before them.” Now something had gone wrong. It was as if Howard had been sleeping on 10 mattresses and woke up angry that someone had slipped a pea beneath the bottom cushion.

You don’t worry when overrated acts like the Eagles get angry at criticism. I was once confronted at South by Southwest by Vance Gilbert, an astoundingly untalented singer/songwriter from Boston who tried to bully me into an apology for a review I’d written. When that didn’t work, he crumpled up a paper cup and threw it at me. His anger had as much impact as that cup, but I do worry when an act as talented as the Alabama Shakes overreacts to constructive disapproval.

Not every musician has such thin skin. I was once backstage at a Grateful Dead show at the Capital Centre, when my friend Dennis McNally, the band’s publicist at the time, introduced me to Bruce Hornsby, who was playing keys on the tour. Hornsby’s eyes widened and he said, “You’re that guy who wrote that review about me in the Washington Post.” I was, and he gave me grief about it for a few minutes. But once he’d had his say, we got past it and had a perfectly civilized conversation.

The same thing happened the first time I talked to Vince Gill after I’d written some tough things about his songwriting. He made a joke about it to begin the interview, but he was a gentleman, and we had a very good talk about our shared enthusiasm for Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell and the steel guitar. I still have mixed feelings about Hornsby’s and Gill’s music, but I respect them greatly as people.

I have written that Alvin had better songwriting decades in the ‘80s and ‘90s than Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty, but I’ve also written that the vocals on his first solo album, 1987’s Romeo’s Escape, spoiled a good batch of songs. When I met him backstage after a show in the early ‘90s, he volunteered, “You were right about my vocals on that album; it took me a few years to figure out how to use my voice.” That right there, hearing a gifted artist admit that a negative review had some merit, remains the pinnacle of my career of a music critic.

So one worries about the Alabama Shakes, who seem to be walling off such feedback. After two albums, the band is in an analogous position to Springsteen’s after his first two albums. In both cases, the live shows have been so much more powerful than the studio recordings that the contrast is night and day. The challenge for each act at that point in their careers was (and is) how to translate the excitement from the stage to the studio. Springsteen did it; he even hired a music critic, Jon Landau, as co-producer to help him figure it out. He didn’t do it by pouting when someone said a cross word to him.

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