We all say and write things we later regret. We change our minds, we temper our more strident opinions, we gain a little wisdom and rethink our naive viewpoints. We hope for forgiveness regarding our more egregious statements, and we pray that our more regrettable thoughts will be lost with the passage of time.
But for those of us who ever wrote under a byline, well, we must face facts: Everything is still there in print to forever haunt us. (These days, every email/text/twitter remark is apparently saved in data banks forever and ever, so I guess I have a lot of company now.)
From 1979 until 1994, I wrote as a staff writer and freelancer for the Sun Newspapers and Scene Magazine in Cleveland, Ohio, writing reviews of local concert appearances and new album releases. For a rock music fanatic like me, it was a dream job. Not only did I get to see the best bands, from great seats, for free, I was sometimes even paid for my time “working,” with free parking to boot.
I recently learned the downside of this when I unearthed some old file clippings of concerts I reviewed back around 1980 or so. It may have been 35 years ago, and perhaps that will provide some wiggle room, but holy smokes, I could be so damn cocky and out of line sometimes. For what it’s worth, I hereby apologize for some of what I had to say.
Reviews are, by their very nature, subjective and opinionated. But good critical writing doesn’t just trash or laud something — it’s supposed to come with perspective and a knowledge base and explain WHY you like or don’t like something. Some of my printed thoughts were surprisingly coherent and still valid today (we’ll get to those), but way too many were what I like to call “cringeworthy” — comments we wish we could take back.
Here’s what I had to say about Aerosmith in 1979: “They play raw, angry, even belligerent rock without a trace of melody… It’s beyond me how these self-described ‘Bad Boston boys’ have been able to score six platinum albums out of six. Then again, a lot of people bought Edsels.” Yikes. How dismissive I was of a pretty damn good band that dominated the charts for a very long time and are still revered today. My comment might have described a number of dissonant heavy metal bands of that day, but surely not Aerosmith.
And this was me in 1979 reviewing a Paul Simon show: “I can’t stomach a gospel version of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.'” Seriously? Good God, the song IS gospel through and through! How could I be so critical of a moving rendition of this iconic song performed by the composer with backing by the Jessie Dixon Singers, a brilliant gospel chorus?
My mid-’20s sexist nature reared its ugly head in this 1980 review of Linda Ronstadt: “Her latest album cover makes her look like a catty vixen in heat…” and also this: “She’s got a pretty little pout, among other things…” At that time, women had only just begun to be given the respect which had been long overdue in the popular music arena, but that doesn’t excuse my focus on her appearance instead of her musical talents. In my defense, I did shower her with accolades for her amazing voice and ability to cover diverse genres…
I began a review of Eric Clapton’s excellent 1980 live album “Just One Night” by calling him “the guitar hero of the ’60s who became the biggest burnout of the ’70s…” I am humiliated by this remark — not only were there many far more obvious ’70s burnouts, but Clapton moved on to become a testament to addiction recovery throughout the ’80s, ’90s and beyond.
Most amusing in its naiveté was a piece I wrote offering tips for how to maximize a concert-going experience. The thing positively reeks of 1979 economic indicators: “Prices have gotten out of hand. A guy who takes his date to an Eagles show could conceivable pay $30 for tickets, parking, beers and a tank of gas.” Wow. WOW. Can you just imagine paying only $30 for all that? Today, that same evening might cost as much as $750.
Sometimes I wrote things that were merely inaccurate: For a 1981 Joe Walsh show, I said, “He’s been on the last three Eagles albums, but he recently emerged on his own.” He was on TWO Eagles albums, and the band had since broken up, so what was my point, exactly? In a 1981 Beach Boys review, I actually wrote, “Bruce Johnston, who replaced original member Glen Campbell back in 1966…” Campbell was a touring member of the band for only four months in ’65, and he had replaced the irreplaceable Brian Wilson on the road; Campbell was certainly not an original member. In my critique of a 1981 comeback show by Three Dog Night, I referred to them as “one of the worst names for a band in the history of rock music.” Not only are there far worse names, then and since, but it’s actually a wonderfully descriptive term for a frigid night in the world’s colder climes, where you need not one or two but three dogs to sleep with to keep you warm.
Most damning of all was my critique of a performance by Todd Rundgren and Utopia in 1981, when I actually wrote this: “With his homely face, newly-chopped hair style and toothpick body, Rundgren looks like an autistic child, bouncing awkwardly around the stage.” I can’t even begin to describe how ashamed I am that I ever came up with that appalling sentence, or how my editors ever let it slip into print. I should’ve been severely reprimanded for such a callous, insensitive remark.
I’m proud to say, however, that amongst these cringeworthy comments, I found some lines that hold up rather nicely, even four decades later. Some of them are, dare I say it, even prophetic:
I described an intimate 1979 concert by the late Harry Chapin this way: “Chapin is a suburb storyteller. His songs more closely resemble short stores than lyric poems, and he tells his tales as if he’s our grandfather reading to us at bedside.”
Jazz fusion artists Weather Report were described like this: “The group couldn’t be more aptly named. One moment, the music is anarchic, like some apocalyptic storm, and the next moment it’s as peaceful as a lazy summer evening.”
At an enthusiastically received 1980 show by the great humanitarian Graham Nash, I began with, “The audience adored him, this man with the perfect tenor who sings of whales, cathedrals, children and nuclear madness.”
Sometimes in my reviews, I would provide perspective based on my age, and in this case from late 1980, it was more illuminating than self-indulgent: “At 25, I’ve found that at most concerts I attend, I’m one of the older people there. The average age of concertgoers these days must be about 17. So I was pleasantly surprised to be among the younger people Saturday…”
How revealing it was to discover that I referred to Bruce Springsteen in concert in 1981 much the same way I did in a blog essay a few months ago when I recalled a 1975 concert experience. In 1981: “He jumps from the stage to the amps to the piano top to the drum platform back to the floor like a rambunctious monkey bouncing around his cage.” In the recent blog post: “He scampered all over the stage like a chimpanzee in heat, bringing the crowd to a frenzy that rarely dissipated.” Is that lazy writing? Self-plagiarism? Perhaps. But I’ll just say it’s a pretty great metaphor that stands up to the tests of time…
My description of Blue Oyster Cult’s excessive volume level at a 1982 concert presaged my late-50s curmudgeonly ways and my growing discontent for unnecessary bombast: “The volume went far beyond ear-splitting and into the sound-warp range. The drum beat becomes part of your spine, and the bass line thunders against your chest. There’s a wall of sound that completely envelops you, like standing on an airport runway when the Concorde takes off.” I’m immediately reminded of the old saying, “If it’s too loud, you’re too old…”
I went out on a limb with this assessment of Rod Stewart in early 1982: “Even at his artistic peak, when he was belting out the blues with Jeff Beck in 1968-69, Stewart’s limitations were obvious. Some call his voice ‘expressively raspy and coarse,’ but that’s a euphemism for ‘can’t hit the notes and basically can’t sing.'” Plenty of readers will aggressively disagree with me on this, but three decades later, I still feel the same way.
A description of the great Judy Collins in a 1982 concert: “She’s no longer the innocent waif in peasant dress and bare feet; these days she more closely resembles an elegant baroness. But the clincher, as usual, was her voice, a matchless soprano as extraordinary as ever.”
The faceless nature of so many popular bands of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the fact that their lineup changed many times over the years, is captured with this comment: “The list of Doobie Brothers hit singles is fairly awesome, even though most people wouldn’t know a Doobie if they ran into him on the street.”
When I reviewed a 1983 Barry Manilow show, I gave him plenty of points for his “fun and vivacious showmanship” and being “a gifted arranger and producer with a tight, professional band that gives him all the backup he could ever ask for.” But I lambasted him for his “unbelievable schmaltzy material” that made him “the Perry Como of his generation.” Ooh boy, the Manilow fans didn’t like that one little bit, as one woman wrote in a letter to the editor. “It seems that Manilow couldn’t do anything right by you, Mr Hackett.” She took me to task for “expressing only his views and opinions instead of an objective critique.” (Hmmm — a “critique” is always SUBjective, full of views and opinions; was I supposed to file a news report as if it were a city council meeting?)
Looking back on these reviews written so long ago, I can only chuckle at my occasional immature statements and periodic on-the-money assessments of the shows I was seeing. As Bob Dylan might say, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” I’m certainly glad I held on to these old clippings, and I trust you found them an interesting “sign of the times” from another era.