RIP THE VILLAGE VOICE
Freaky freelancing tales
by Jason Gross
When the word came that The Village Voice was finally giving up the ghost and not publishing any new material, I wasn't sad, even through it had been a vital, influential part of my life for so long and I had worked for them as a freelance writer for over a dozen years (1998-2013). Their end was telegraphed years ago, even before the print edition was gone in 2017 and it was just a matter of time before it disappeared online too as print-legacy pubs usually fade off unless they have rich sugar daddies to keep 'em going (see this Digiday round-up for some recent examples).
I did get kinda sentimental about the time I worked there and the people I worked with and the stories I got to cover so I started plowing through my old notes and emails to remember all the fun, nutty, infuriating times there.
In the paper's online archives, my articles there are mostly 'Voice Choices,' weekly mini-write-ups of upcoming shows, which serves as kind of a weird time capsule of events then. For their live review section, "The Sound of the City," I did get to do a bunch of write-ups, mostly covering people coming out of hiding/retirement (Howard Tate in 2001, Arthur Lee in 2002, Ari Upp and T-Bone Burnett in 2006, Roky Erickson and Sly Stone in 2007, Tina Turner in 2008, Leonard Cohen in 2009) alongside a bunch of unlikely, odd band reunions (Plastic People in 1998, ESG in 2000, Camper Van Beethoven in 2002, Undertones, Incredible String Band and remnants of the MC5 in 2004, the Raspberries in 2005, Os Mutantes in 2006, Cluster and the Feelies in 2008).
Even after doing all of those write-ups, it was still tough to get into the album review section but I was able to find my niche to cover all kinds of bizarro stuff- reunion records from Big Star and the Soft Boys, novelty items from Eric Idle and Rick Moranis, flag-waving country singer Darryl Worley, electro-African band Konono No. 1, nerd-rapper MC Chris, a Warner Bros. sound effects record, a great series of semi-legal sub-indie punk compilations ("Homework"), Canuck teen heart-throbs Hot Hot Heat, Bronx blues man Poppa Chubby and Bob Dylan's Xmas record. A lot of it seems like a blur now but there's good memories (working for Gary Giddins' Jazz Supplement on an extensive George Russell profile), not so great memories (getting bombed on eggnog at the Dylan listening party), bizarre memories (seeing a review on the shrink rap sticker on a Konono album and not realizing it was my writing) and just plain freakin' hair-raising shit (the phoner for the Arthur Lee story, which was a psychotic one-sided shouting match).
I wanted to share some memorable tales about my time working there (sorry, no dirt, but plenty of funny crap), plus the story of how the paper shaped and warped me in many ways as I know it did for plenty of other people inside and outside of NYC. I do some name-dropping here to show that a number of people I worked with and worked for there went on to other great things themselves after working at the Voice. As for me, I'm a sushi-eating liberal and a decent writer and editor who was able to get a number of other gigs because of that rag and I'll always be grateful to the Voice for that.
THE CORRUPTING LIBERAL INFLUENCE
In the tiny little suburban town that I grew up in North Jersey, there was a candy store called the Hobby Shop where I'd buy Marvel Comics. At school, I heard the older kids listening to classic rock tunes that were still in their heyday and it got to me as something vital I needed in my life alongside the superheroes I worshipped and candy bars I devoured. I started listening to local NYC stations like WPLJ and WNEW and seeking out music mags at the same candy store. They had Billboard and Circus but what really caught my eye was Creem magazine, which looked as wild and irreverent as the music itself. This would have been August 1978 where I picked up my first copy with Bob Seger on the cover. I loved the disrespectful photo captions (done by Lester Bangs and Billy Altman) but my fave writer there was some guy with a weird name- Robert Christgau- who was studious, knowledgeable, funny and snarky at the same time.
After years of learning about all kinds of weird white rock shit I never heard of before in Creem (Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart, all the early Rough Trade stuff), I noticed that Christgau's byline came from something called The Village Voice, which I'd never heard of before but that happened to be on sale at the newsstand. My first copy of the Voice was the November 2, 1982 edition, which had one of Christgau's Consumer Guides there, this time championing Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson.
I was jazzed to see Christgau's column a few weeks before it came out in a new issue of Creem, thinking that I now had advance, inside knowledge, though I kept reading Creem to see which rock star they'd pull apart in their own pages. I also kept reading the Voice and out of curiosity, I started reading rest of the paper and got my liberal bend from that, appropriately just before I started college. I'd also see ads for NYC shows and I got hungry to see live music there as I was finally old enough to start going out on my own. When I got to college upstate, we'd get the paper there a day late and a hipster friend of mine would say "it's only cool if you get the Voice by Wednesday (a day late)." There too, I would marvel at the NYC shows and happenings there, imagining that one day I'd be in the thick of it, not knowing that a few years later, I would be overloading on the music scene there. Hey kid- be careful about what you wish for.
THE TUESDAY-NIGHT RITUAL
In early '90's when I moved to NYC (in part because I was so enchanted by what I read in the Voice), I'd take a weekly ritual train ride to Astor Place, to the heart of Greenwich Village on Tuesday nights to get the new issue of the Voice just when it came out. It was a pre-digital age so other eager young people would line up around the block at the Astor Place Newsstand ready to raid the paper for wanted ads or rental ads or the personals. This ritual went on with dozens of people standing out there even in rain storms and snow pile-up's. I would haunt the Prince Deli & Market (just down the block) to wait for them to get a copy, usually between 7 and 8PM. After that, I would spend the rest of the night and Wednesday plowing through the paper to read about political outrages and what music, movies and books I needed to consider diving into or what to discuss or argue about with friends. A few times a year, there would be a special Voice treat where they would have their extended Rock and Roll Quarterly edition, a Jazz edition and the annual Pazz & Jop writers' poll. All this excess insanity fed my music jones like nothing else I'd seen- even before I started making friends in NYC, I had a paper to connect me to the city.
ASS-KICKING AND GRATITUDE VIA PRAGUE
The Plastic People- photo by Matthew Covey; courtesy of Joe Yanosik
Just after a pre-concert dinner in Little India, NYC
I started Perfect Sound Forever magazine not long after I arrived in Gotham. One of the early interviews I wanted to bag was Christgau and he agreed to do a phoner in early 1997. He liked the results and liked PSF itself, especially an article he'd seen there about a certain Eastern European rock band. About a year later, he called me and asked if I wanted to do a live review of the first U.S. show that Czech dissident art-rockers the Plastic People of the Universe were going to be doing, for the Voice. I'd never freelanced before or thought I was worthy of writing for the paper (or anywhere else) but I jumped at the chance to be a part of it. He said that he would edit me and thought that I'd actually earn the section 'a gold star.' So yeah, I was pants-pissing nervous that I would actually be writing for my favorite paper.
I arranged with the publicist to meet the Plastics at an Indian restaurant just before their July 18th, 1998 show at Irving Plaza, just to get some background on how the band reunited and what their plans were. After listening to the smuggled out albums of their released on foreign labels for years, I was interested to meet these crazed Velvet Underground loving anarchists. After they arrived and I met them and their manger Olga Zahorbenska (who's been a longtime friend of mine since), I was psyched when I heard that there would be someone from The Voice there for dinner. I came down from my excitement when I finally realized that the person from The Voice was actually me.
I know you're not supposed to bond with your subjects when you're writing about them but I took an instant liking to singer/leader/bassist Milan Hlavsa- he was such a goofy, lively spirit. I did promise Christgau and myself though that if the show did suck, I'd have to report it.
Plastics at Irving Plaza, 1998: Milan, band photo, Josef Janicek
photos by Wendy Stulberg
But the show didn't suck- the years of separation and prison hadn't dimmed the band. They were just as powerful and gloomy as they had been on their decades old records but now there was a little more liveliness to them, thanks in part to new guitarist and hilarious cynic Joe Karafiat. With a setlist similar to their reunion album 1997, they finished off with a moving version of the Velvets' "Sweet Jane."
I sent the first version of the article to Christgau and he went over the edits with me over the phone. Jesus Christ- he kicked my fuckin' ass with that. I was almost in tears after about 10-20 minutes and he just said that I needed to be put through the paces to make my work stronger. He was right too. I took a lot from that experience, learning to have a strong lead-in and finishing sentence, to try to do some phrase-making if possible, to back up what you had to say, to be entertaining AND informative. I was kind of relieved to later hear that other writers had the same experience with him too over line edits- the tearful tearing apart and then the gratitude for lessons learned. After Christgau was done with me, I was ready to send the redone piece to the actual editor of the live section (Dennis Lim, who's an exceptional writer), who added some of his own edits and thoughts to boot. At the very least, my headline survived intact, taking up the Voice tradition of coming up with clever, punny titles- in this case, covering the gloomy aspect of the band and how they could finally play their music without getting arrested, I titled the article "Freedom of Depressed."
Plastics at Irving Plaza, 1998: Jiri Kabes, Vratislav Brabenec
photos by Wendy Stulberg
I was so goddamn excited when the story was published about a week later (in the July 22, 1998 issue) that when I got several copies of the paper so I could send the article to my friends and family. I kept one copy of the article which I laminated and framed it. Yeah, that's corny as shit but I couldn't have been prouder. The piece still sits on my wall and I get kind of fuzzy memories whenever I glance over at the thing. Good thing I put it up there too- it ain't on the Voice website anymore though you can still see it thanks to the Wayback Machine.
"So, what do I do next?" I asked Christgau then. "Well, you could do some more live reviews there," he suggested. Hell, he even told me that I could call him 'Bob' ("only my teachers and parents called me 'Robert'"). And with that, my freelancing career started. I'd get frustrated as hell many times with editors, artists, publicists and other writers but I wouldn't give any of it up. Well, maybe some of it- see below.
DAMO AND MICKEY KICK THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD
Just a few weeks after the Plastics show, I got word that Damo Suzuki was going to be doing an NYC show in October 1998 and that was no small deal for me. You see, I was (and am) a kosmische music fan, which also goes by the un-PC term 'krautrock.' Damo was the singer for Can from 1970 to 1973 after being 'discovered' as a street singer by the band when they were looking for a new crooner. Damo's madcap vocals fit in perfectly with the rest of the band. The news that he was touring with Can guitarist Michael 'Mickey' Karoli was cake-icing for sure.
As with the Plastics, I arranged to meet up with the Can boys beforehand to get some background for the story. We went out to a Japanese restaurant in Chelsea and as everyone else ordered sushi, I balked at the idea of eating uncooked fish. Mickey insisted that I was wrong though- "if you have it prepared well at a good restaurant, it's delicious!" he insisted. I sucked it up and order the damn stuff and much to my surprise, he was right. It really was good and I've been happily chowing down on it every since so I guess I somewhat owe the Voice for getting me to overcome my sushi fears.
Later, I went with the band for their soundcheck at the Cooler (a long-gone underground club that was in the Meat Packing district). Backstage, I started to interrogate Damo about what he was planning now and that went fine at first but after a series of joints that he puffed through, all of his answers were punctuation marks: "Dot, comma, period, dot, exclamation point!" he would say. Kind of amusing but not much help for the article.
For the show, Damo, Mickey and the younger band were getting a good head of steam for their crazed psych-jam session, occasionally making their way into the crowd to play, but then cut it off and they left abruptly after about an hour. The crowd started to exit and I sensed something was wrong so I went backstage to ask what was going on. Mickey said "we just finished our first set and we're taking a break- we do this for European shows all the time." I said 'that's great there but the crowd is leaving now- they think you're done for the night." Hearing this, Damo ran back out and told the remaining crowd to stick around as they'd come back again in about 10-20 minutes. After they finished the 2nd set, he anxiously made sure to remind them to hang out again as they'd be back soon. Deciding that my duty as a writer meant that I had to stick around for the very last note of the show, I was there until 4 A.M. when they finished their third set. By that time, there were only about a dozen people left in the crowd and Damo made his way out to thank each of us with a sweaty hug. Luckily, it wasn't a 'school night' and I was able to file my review (the 2nd one there on the page) a few days later. Years later, when the paper went online, I wouldn't be so lucky about late night reviews but I managed to get the story in after a wild night and though I was a Can fan, I had to objectively report on the show, including the fowl up with the first set.
That was only my second article for the paper.
I spent most of my time writing for the Voice doing brief previews of live shows ("Voice Choices"), guided by my editors there, Stacy Anderson (now a Pitchfork editor and a dinner buddy) and Shawn Bosler, who marveled that he had 'a heavy metal guy,' 'a jam band guy' and 'a jazz guy' to cover different areas but I seemed to be able to cover almost everything. Shit, I was flattered by that.
As for the album reviews, that was coveted, fought-over space and not easy to get unless you got your pitch in early and had a great idea and angle to go with it and even then, you were up against some heavyweights who were also pitching the same thing. It wasn't for lack of trying that I didn't make it there but I was just glad to say that I had a byline in the Voice, jealousy be damned. And I was actually getting paid for it too- we weren't paid much for those ("it's beer money," another writer said) but the thought that I could actually do music writing in a semi-professional way and write off some of music-related items on my taxes never occurred to me before that.
As a reward for my club hauntings, I got an invite from the Voice office for their holiday parties. I was damned honored. Stupid little me would get to rub shoulders with some real writers and get to pretend that I was one of their peers.
For several years in the early '00s (could we NOT call them 'oughts'?), I would arrive at small dive bars in the Village about a week before Xmas for these little holiday affairs when I'd actually drink, which I usually didn't, except for special occasions like that. I was just delighted to be invited along with the other freelancers and felt like part of the family there and also a part of an NYC institution that I'd loved for so long.
These were usually fun, low-key affairs. I remember one costume-themed shindig where I dressed up as an earnest young reporter with a bunch of club/festival badges around my neck and a tape recorder, asking the rest of the bunch the most inane question I could think of- I probably have the tape somewhere still and I should digitize it and blackmail everyone I recorded there. Believe it or not, Bob and Carola Dibbell came to the party as John and Yoko. No, I don't have a pic of that but boy, I wish that I did.
At another memorable shindig, I first met up with Chuck Eddy (who started there as an editor in early 1999). I have to say that at first, I didn't like him- not for his personality but because when he took over as music editor, some of the 'new voices' he brought in seemed like illiterate chumps to me. I actually started writing for him because I thought to myself 'Jeez, even I could write better than those clowns!' As it turns out, Chuck was not only a very nice and funny guy but also a really good line editor who I'm extremely grateful to for helping me become a better writer. I still remember him telling me "when you say 'it' or 'they,' you have to explain what you mean!" He (Chuck) was right.
For this first meet-up with Chuck at a Voice party, I was there with my then-roomie Michaelangelo Matos (also a VV writer at the time). Chuck was always a little devilish with his humor so he said to us, "You know, I think I want to keep all those bootleg remixes out of the Pazz and Jop poll..." Matos, who was a known mash-up enthusiast, took the bait and exploded- "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT!! ARE YOU CRAZY?' he yelled. Chuck slid behind me and kept saying to me "Tell him I'm kidding, tell him I'm kidding..." Luckily, I was able to defuse the situation. They might deny it happened but trust me, it did happen and it was freakin' hilarious (to me, if not to them).
PAZZ AND JOP SHOP
After years of pouring through the paper's annual Pazz and Jop writer's poll every February when it came out, I was starting to get P&J ballots in the mail. Again, I thought this meant that I was actually a writer and someone whose opinion actually mattered. What's more, I had to start to take note of what I liked and tell the world about it. This was a big step for me- before, my albums would pile up on shelves and the floor and I wouldn't give a crap about doing anything more than organizing them by letter. Now, I actually had to keep notes about which albums and singles I liked every year. This was some thorny shit- I took it seriously, way too seriously. The first few times I would freakin' AGONIZE over this and worry that I would attach my name to some lame music or would regret some of my choices later (which I would and everyone usually does, thought they don't wanna admit it). I eventually learned to organize my yearly list and would start on them in January as soon as I started hearing music I liked and I kept a running tally of everything, including rough rankings of which ones seemed to be the best. Yeah, that seems like some obsessive shit but when you sign up for being a music writer, that's part of what you become- an obsessive mother.
P&J 2001 Ballot via Christgau, Eddy- "Do it now. Thanks."
For my first P&J ballot, for the 1997 poll, my list looked like this:
1 The Plastic People of the Universe 1997
2 Real- The Tom T. Hall Project
3 Rancid Life Won't Wait
4 Barbara Manning In New Zealand
5 Local H Pack Up the Cats
6 Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith Yo Miles!
7 Sonic's Rendezvous Sweet Nothing
8 Drums of Death
9 Liz Phair Whitechocolatespaceegg
10 Massacre Funny Valentine
1 Beastie Boys 'Intergallactic'
2 Fatboy Slim 'The Rockafeller Skank'
3 Brand Nubian 'Don't Let It Go To Your Head'
4 Timbaland and Magoo 'Clock Strikes'
5 Beck 'Tropicalia'
6 Sonic Youth 'Sunday'
7 DJ Spooky 'Object Unknown'
8 Ice 'Headwreck'
9 Garbage 'Push It'
10 Lauryn Hill 'Doo Wop (That Thing)'
Looking back, I have no problem with the singles (though I should have boosted "I'm Black & I'm Proud" for Brand Nubian instead) but some of the albums don't sound as fresh as they did for me in '97- Rancid and Manning in particular, though they're still decent records. Also, it's kind of troubling that I didn't have as much love for R&B and rap albums (where's Biggie & Missy?) though that's definitely changed for me now. Like I said, we writers are geeks who obsess over music/lists/rankings.
At the December 2000 holiday party, Chuck mentioned that he was up to his armpits in P&J ballots. Like an eager young idiot, I said 'hey, I can help!' About a month later, I found myself in the Voice offices one night alongside Chuck, Bob and Nick Catucci, who was Chuck's assistant at the time and is now an editor at Billboard. This was the early age of the Internet so they were still dealing with paper ballots sent in. We joked about throwing out all the ballots that had Radiohead on them and about hanging chads in the wake of the stolen Bush-Gore 2000 election and eventually beer was brought out to help the work go on. It was tiring and boring but still, the bonding experience was some nice shit. I wound up not tossing out the Radiohead ballots so I figure that Yorke and friends owe me for that.
Benefit album cover
For anyone in NYC or anyone not in NYC, the worst day here had to be September 11, 2001. I watched the 2nd plane hit one of the towers while I was standing in the street and saw the 2nd tower go down when I was on a rooftop. After that, I told myself that I had no need to ever see the memorial downtown which went up years later. It's kind of painful to relate the details otherwise so I'd just direct you to this article for Blurt where a bunch of us NY'ers related what we saw and did that day: http://blurtonline.com/feature/where-were-you-on-911-2/.
Along with some volunteer work I did for a local church, gathering supplies for the victims, I also got word from Chuck that the Voice was going to do a benefit album for the September 11th Fund and a concert. Also, he wanted to know if any of us scribes might be able to help gather artists and listen to some submissions for the album. For the artists that I had written about and interviewed, I was able to coral folkies Loudon Wainwright III and Peter Stampfel, hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, Slits singer Ari Upp, Velvets drummer Moe Tucker and jazz pianist Matthew Shipp to contribute to the record. I was pretty grateful to them for saying yes and participating- they had to fell the same need to support NYC as we all did then.
We scribes gathered at the Voice offices to listen though the dozens of musical submissions that came in for the album with a big rectangular table to hold about 15 of us for the 'listening party,' including Chuck, Nick, Bob, Joe Levy (previous Voice editor, now an Rolling Stone editor) and others. Considering that we were there in a conference room in 9-11's aftermath to organize a benefit, the mood was pretty lighthearted as we all got to chance to wear our critic's masks together. Among the submissions was R. Stevie Moore (who didn't make the cut, thanks in part to an objection by Levy) and a then-unknown Andrew W.K. who cracked up all of us with his attempted anthem "I Love NYC" (which did make the cut and I admit that I hated it at the time). Bob kept grousing about some of the lousy submissions, asking Chuck to cut off the music early- "life's too short!" Bob insisted.
I don't remember most of the other submissions, which weren't included on the album. The musical slots mostly went to 'name' performers and crit faves like Moby, Cornershop, Mekons, Joseph Arthur, Gogol Bordello, Baaba Maal, which was fine with me in a way 'cause the album, Wish You Were Here: Love Songs For New York which came out April 2002 on The Voice's own label, was a good one that was culled from a huge pile of songs. According to the press release, "with over 1,000 submissions received from signed and unsigned artists, the staff narrowed down the selections to 18 songs." Later, I heard that Douglas Wolk (then Voice writer, now Time's music writer) actually listened to every submission and wrote it up for an article for the paper- that's real dedication, and obsession, for you.
Around the time of the album release, a show was put together at the Knitting Factory (when it was on Leonard Street in Soho) to promote it, with Chuck as the MC. I brought a date there and she was somewhat impressed to hear Chuck mention my name on stage among others who helped with getting the record together. During a break in the action, he introduced me to Amy Philips, then another Voice writer who wrote the infamous article asking Sonic Youth to break up and who would go on to be a concert-buddy for me and later and a Pitchfork editor. I vaguely remember that among the benefit performers were Ari, Stampfel and Maal, which made for a nice celebration for a somber event. Somehow I thought that at least I'd scored some karma points for helping out with that. Alongside my Plastics review, I have another framed picture of a promo for the album on my wall. Like I said, I'm a mushy guy but the whole Wish episode is one thing I can be proud of.
JOINING THE HALL OF FAME'S SMOKE-FILLED ROOM
Some time around 2009, I watched part of the Tom Petty documentary Runnin' Down a Dream- I must have been bored but also maybe a little curious. At one point during a rehearsal that was falling apart, keyboardist Benmont Tench chewed out the rest of the band to get their act together, reminding them "we're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!"
For years, I hated the whole idea of the HoF- it seemed like elitist bullshit convened by a bunch of chummy insiders to congratulate and honor themselves and their buddies- it was the musical version of the smokey backrooms where political parties used to picked their candidates. Probably better to burn the whole HoF down, especially since they mostly only seemed to honor the big name acts and not the cult acts I loved (Big Star, Swamp Dogg) or the Brit acts I loved (Roxy Music, Gang of Four). Tench's outburst taught me something though- a cult-act fan like me could hate on the HoF all I wanted but the thing did exist. It was an institution and even the people involved in it took it seriously (kind of like the Grammys). If a HoF was gonna be around, couldn't it be better?
I stewed about this for months and finally gathered some notes together to pitch to Chuck for an article around the time of the 2010 induction ceremony, where ABBA (half of 'em showed up), Genesis (who looked bored as shit), Jimmy Cliff (who was inspirational there), The Stooges (who deserved it but no doubt got in 'cause Madonna had them sub for her the year before) and The Hollies (who were excited as shit) all were inducted. Chuck gave me the green light so I not only put in all my HoF grousing but also interviewed some of the people I knew on the nominating committee there (Dave Marsh, Alan Light) and some detractors who also hated the place (Jim DeRogatis, Brett Milano). I also added in some of my own suggestions about how to improve the place- i.e. education projects, supporting the Cleveland music scene, killing off the RIAA, etc..
I was satisfied with the end result, which came out on March 9, 2010 and turned out to be my only lead piece in the music section there and probably the last non-concert write-up I did for the paper. In the aftermath, the HoF boosters (Marsh) and detractors (Milano) contacted me to say that they all liked the piece, which means that my attempt to make it even-handed had actually worked out somehow.
My first Hall of Fame ballot
A few weeks later, a strange thing happened. I got an e-mail from the HoF's office asking if I would like to become one of their group of voting members that would get a ballot in the mail every year. Since I tipped off some of the nominating committee guys that my piece with their quotes was coming out, I thought that this couldn't be a coincidence thought this honestly wasn't what I was angling for or imagined that this would happen. Maybe some of them thought "hey, this clown might be on to something..." or maybe they thought that "we need to have this indie rock schmuck voting here to assuage our conscious..." I actually wasn't sure if I did want to be a HoF voter though. "What good would it do?" I wondered. But then I thought that it's one thing to bitch about the place from the outside but another thing to be part of the process and try to shape it, even in a small way. And unlike the Grammys, who wanted to filch me for $75 bucks a year, there were no membership fee to be a HoF voter. I said yes and got my first ballot that November and I've been getting in the mail every year since then. Truth be told, even on a good year, maybe 1 or 2 of my choices make the induction cut and they still refuse to have write-in's or honor my petition to have Cat Stevens kicked out of there. But I admit that I do get a small thrill when some of my faves who I think are worthy get in, thinking that I had a little something to do with it- most recently, Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Thorpe.
Goddamn it, I have something else to thank the Voice for.
MAMA M.I.A.- I CAN'T GO AGAIN
Along with trying to scribe notes in that dark at concerts and figuring out what the hell you wrote later, one of the most challenging and 'fun' things about doing live reviews for The Voice was that you not only got to be the writer but also the photographer many times, especially post-millennium. No doubt that this doubling-up was a way to save some dough on their part but it also made you step up your game to take pics. I even invested in a digital camera to use at shows (and promptly wrote it off on my taxes). I wasn't the only one who had to learn to become a photog on the fly- at one Knitting Factory show, I saw writer/editor Laura Sinagra at the stage edge, struggling to get a shot so I took her to the upstairs balcony so she could get her pic.
One of my last Voice live reviews was of an M.I.A. show at Terminal 5 in September 2010, which was the 4th time I'd seen her. I caught her premier her debut Kala around 2005 at S.O.B.'s (which only fit a few hundred people) where she could barely fill out a set, telling the crowd "I have to write more songs!" when they yelled for an encore. The 2nd show as at the Siren Festival in 2007, which the Voice regularly put together on two stages in Coney Island. Since I was considered to part of the press, I was able to get into the front pit with my girlfriend and snap some close-up pics for our own edification. I was impressed- M.I.A. definitely had more presence there. But it was nothing compared to the swagger and 'tude that she brought to a 2008 headlining show in Brooklyn at McCarren Park. The Term5 show was going to be interesting no doubt since she had just put out a 'difficult' record (Maya) and had been partly done in by a hack-ish piece in the New York Times which made her seem like a spoiled rich kid posing as a revolutionary. Clearly, she'd have something to prove when she hit the road with the record.
M.I.A. at Coney Island, photo by Robin Cook
(As I side note, when I did a guest lecture bit at Courtney Harding's NYU journalism class about five years later, discussing my M.I.A. piece, the Times article came up and the usually quiet class erupted in anger over how shabbily the writer treated her, such that I had to tell them "I DON'T AGREE WITH THIS CRAP EITHER- DON'T SHOOT THE MESSENGER!")
In my other reviews, I liked to spice things up with different kind of narrative techniques- writing in the second person ("You are entering a space..."), using sound effect noises, making it a stand-up routine, etc.. For the M.I.A. review, I decided to make it a letter/communique to her. I sympathized that she might not reach the commercial heights of "Paper Planes" again and that the Times piece was bullshit and all of that shouldn't stop her.
For the show, since I had to be the photographer again, I got to go up in the front photo cage area (in between the stage and audience) making use of the 'three song rule' where you had the first three numbers to snap a pic and then you were kicked out by the burly security guys (who I gotta say, were usually nice people). There I was with my dinky little camera among the paparazzi with their huge camera rigs which no doubt cost thousands of dollars and with some of them scowling at me, wondering what was I doing there in their domain. I noticed that the other photogs were off to the left or right and not at the center of the stage. I was delighted to perch myself right in front of the center mic where she would perform. Big mistake. Turns out that you get a better shot perspective when you're off to the side, as I was about to learn. M.I.A. was working it center stage, about 1-2 feet right in front of me. While that's great for a selfie, if you're trying to take a good concert pic, it sucks. I kept trying to back up but the audience barrier was right behind me so no luck. I'm not positive but I could swear that she was leaning forward sometimes just to see me squirm there. Eventually, I wised up, heading off to the side and got my pics before being ushered out of there. Turns out that was the least of my problems.
M.I.A. at Terminal 5, photos by Jason Gross
After about 13 years of filing live reviews, I was used to a comfortable routine in a pre-digital age. Since the Voice was a weekly, my editors were fine with me filing my reviews a few days after a show, which was great 'cause I had time to try to read my notes, gather up my thoughts and craft it into a decent review. No more. Now that everything was shifting online, the turnaround time collapsed. Instead of having a few days to file the review, I only had a few HOURS to file the freakin' thing as it was supposed to go on the website in the morning. And mind you, I had a day job to go to in the morning too, which was gonna mean that I had to put in an eight hour shift with only a few hours sleep, if I was lucky.
I took a cab home right after the show and on the way back, I already started going through my notes to make sure everything was legible so I could furiously start typing it when I got back. I was home just after midnight when I started writing, barely awake- I even got to make comparisons to other shows she'd done before, which for some reason, even seasoned writers never seemed to do in their own write-ups. I gave myself a quick breather so I could go back and re-read it again and make sure it all wasn't crap. I sent it to my editor and who sent back a bunch of questions and comments I had to go over to redo the piece. I sent it back again, hoping that it was good enough or that they were exhausted enough to give it a thumbs up. Luckily, they were good with it so I got to call it a night, at about 2:30AM. Four hours later, my alarm went off and I was off to work and the article went online. That whole day was a blur for me and I mainlined about a gallon of coffee and came home and passed out until the next morning when I woke up in a daze again and barely made it through the next day. When I woke up the day after that and I was still wrecked, I knew my days as an overnight reviewer were over.
The later days of the Voice are a miserable story, with a succession of publishers and editors and owners coming and going every few years. Bob and Chuck were both fired in 2006. Another change was that the Previews section was taken away from us freelancers and given to one staff editor to write. As such, other jobs such as the annual Best of New York issue (which I loved contributing to) were also taken away from freelancers and mostly given to staff. With Voice writers doubling up on work, it seemed penny-wise/pound-foolish to keep cost cutting and squeezing more work out of fewer people but they thought they could keep it alive for a while that way. The editor after Chuck was Rob Harvilla (now at the Ringer), who was great to work with (along with his wonderful boss, editor-in-chief Tony Ortega), but after he left in 2011, the paper made the next series of music editors also pull double duty, writing most of the music features. After Rob, there was no place for me to write for Voice, which was heart-breaking since I enjoyed it for so long that it seemed like it was part of my identity. My only contact with the Voice after 2013 was getting a link for an online ballot for the Pazz and Jop (P&J) poll every December. After a decade of being part of the Voice family, I felt like I had become the ugly step-kid by then.
For the 2017 edition of P&J, they decided not to publish any ballot info and to only include some overarching essays otherwise. Some people rightly chalked this slacking off at P&J up to the lack of staff there to help with that but interns could have filled in the gap and since the whole system was online and mostly automated by then, it shouldn't have been a stretch to have the ballots included there. I was pissed that we didn't have P&J ballots anymore and I wasn't the only one- the complaints about this were all over Facebook with other scribes furious about this.
OK, it's kind of petty for me to bitch about this, especially since they did print my comments (about ambient music) in the 2017 P&J but the ballots were really the best part of the poll. That's where you got to see all the fascinating minutia- I did say that we music writers are obsessive geeks, right? I would learn a lot about music I missed from seeing other people's ballots as opposed to whatever the hive mind collective was praising as the poll 'winners,' which were a bunch of albums that everyone knew about anyway. Hell, they couldn't even list the NAMES of us voters so we were really just an anonymous bunch of hacks propping this poll up (insert a joke here if you like).
I decided that I wouldn't be worth voting there anymore. I told them to stop sending me ballots for P&J since it had turned into a joke by then. It turns out that the joke was on me- 2017 was the last edition and there wasn't gonna be any more Pazz & Jop.
UPDATE FROM DECEMBER 2018: Someone at the Voice organization send me a Pazz and Jop ballot for 2018 and I thought it was a prank at first. Someone at the Voice assured me that it was not an April Fool's joke and that they were actually planning to include a list of the voters and ballots this time. I guess I'll be voting then...
A CITY WITHOUT A VOICE
Some say that the Voice died with the end of its print edition in the summer of 2017 but I didn't buy into the nostalgia crap that went along with no longer seeing the red Voice newspaper boxes on the street anymore- that was bound to happen with the digital age and the same problem was hitting almost every print publication out there. Other than The New York Times, just about every other legacy print pub was no match for leaner digital pubs which were more equipped for the web/mobile world. Ads weren't gonna save ‘em as the money for online ads was a fraction of what they earned for print ads, which had been the life blood of these pubs going back before the 20th century. The Voice waffled with little meaningful online initiatives to keep it afloat- I vaguely remember an online forum that Douglas and I moderated in the early 2000's (which was fun) but that was about it. Slacking off when it came to tech/online innovations was a death knell for publications in the new millennium and the Voice didn't get that memo.
About two years ago, a notice went around that the Voice was looking for a music editor. I actually thought of applying since I still knew a few people there at the time and had some of a history with them, though I definitely wasn't as tight with them as I was before. Then something occurred to me- "if you do get that job, how long is it gonna last?" After all, this was a position that had a higher turnover rate than my underwear collection. As thrilled as I would've been to become their music editor and make my mark there, I also knew that because of the shaky nature of the paper, the whole thing could collapse at any minute and I would be out of work then. Sure enough, the editor they hired there didn't last long as they went down with the ship not long after they were hired.
With the shrinking staff and so little talk about the articles going up there, the end was coming for the Voice, like it or not. Other than the Andrew W.K. advice columns, I can't remember anyone mentioning anything recent there for years. Gotham had gone from being a Boho haven with one-percenters ruling uptown to a world where they ruled downtown too. The cycle of artists getting priced out of one gentrified neighborhood after another until there was nowhere for them to go in NYC anymore, which a long established fact by 2018. In a world like this, what place was there for ‘America's biggest weekly alternative paper' in NYC? The fact that the Voice is gone says a lot about the changing character of Gotham and it ain't definitely ain't for the best, unless you have to be an one-percenter.
After getting my first freelance jobs at the Voice, I was able to parlay that into a bunch of other bylines for places like Rolling Stone, Billboard, Time Out, Pitchfork, MOJO, Associated Press and other places but none of them had the pull or gravity or link to something special that the Voice did for me as a music fan, as a journalist and as a New Yorker. It feels like I've lost an old friend. Other than some memories and mementos (wanna Voice pen before it goes on eBay?), I'm sure that a part of me is gonna be gone.
The nuggets that you found in the Voice are still around but it's scattered all of the place. Pitchfork covers alt-rock world and has the occasional think pieces and of course the reviews that musicians argue about and brag about. Daily News still does NYC muck-racking alongside the now revived Gothamist. Places like Politico and Pro Publica do excellent work in national muck raking. Craigslist has all the weird ads now though they aren't clustered together in an eccentric pile as they were at the Voice. Film Comment has good movie think pieces. New Music USA has excellent modern classical coverage (which Kyle Gann and Tom Johnson used to do so well at VV). Brooklyn Vegan picks up the slack for covering NYC nightlife but nothing like Tricia Romano used to do so skillfully at VV. New York Post is still a place for gossip alongside their GOP cheer-leading. Otherwise, you could say that New York Magazine has mightily taken up the slack with some of these items, especially arts and political coverage. But at one time, you could find all of these things wonderfully, expertly covered in one place. And now that's gone.
Thanks to Stacy Anderson, Matthew Covey, Chuck Eddy, Rob Harvilla, Trish Romano, Douglas Wolk and Joe Yanosik and for helping to fill in some of the gaps here.
The New York Times have been doing some wonderful coverage of the legacy of the Voice, including this tribute from Trish Romano (who's working on a book about the Voice now) and this podcast from Jon Caramanica where he interviews a number of the Voice music editors and John Leland covering the ways that the paper made NYC a better place.
NOTE: As much as this article is about the end of the Voice putting out any new stories from now on, I'm glad that their website and social media properties are at least keeping their archives alive.
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