My Friend Chuck
I had been a fan of his music writing for years. So much so, that when I bought a magazine that he wrote for, the first thing I usually did was look for his reviews in the back of the book. Rolling Stone, Spin, Creem, Creem Metal, Entertainment Weekly. This was in the 80's and 90’s and the "golden age" of rockcrit had passed (perhaps), but Chuck kept the flame lit for those of us who had laughed our heads off reading Klassic Creem in the 70's and found it harder and harder to find writing about rock that was funny and smart and full of life (there are always exceptions. Spin and the Village Voice even employed some of these exceptions during the Reagan years. And there were zines that also tried to keep the ball rolling). Chuck stood out. He was funny as hell, for one thing. And he had a way with words that often boggled my little mind. And he was always decisively HIMSELF without that being a detriment to whatever he was writing about. Even in Entertainment Weekly of all places, he managed to hold on to his voice despite the lack of space and restrictions of the company style. This always amazed me. He was the only writer you could pick out of a line-up in that mag at times.
Anyway, I was a fan cuz I treasure good writing wherever I find it, and Chuck’s first book, *Stairway To Hell*, put him over the top for me. This thing was borderline-genius. It also brought home what it was that really made me dig his brand of crit, and what he had to say. It’s kinda corny so you might want to hide your eyes for this part: He made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the world! Somebody else out there actually cared about the same stuff that I did. And took it seriously! Just in case people have forgotten, a pre-internet world could be a lonely place for Wide Boy Awake fans.
When his second book, *The Accidental Evolution Of Rock & Roll*, came out in 1997, I devoured it in record time and I knew I had to do something. I had to write this guy. Just to thank him and let him know that his stuff was much appreciated. I'm not a fan-letter writer kinda guy. It's only been recently that I have made a point of telling the people who have made a difference in my life that I appreciate what they have done. Better late than never! I was always too shy when I was younger. This can backfire, of course. The look of horror on George Carlin’s face as I ran around the counter and accosted him at my last job in Philadelphia – a Korean deli off of Rittenhouse Square- is something I wish I could blot from my memory. "Thanks for all the years, George!" i stammered after FORBIDDING HIM TO LEAVE THE STORE UNTIL I COULD SHAKE HIS HAND! Oy vey. I only hope I gave him 5 good minutes on how annoying people are for a future T.V. special. Thanks for all the years? I'm still fucking mortified.
But I wrote Chuck. I knew he lived in Philly, and there he was in the phone book. Not long after, I got a call at home and it was him. I was awestruck. No, really, awestruck. My ever clever tongue was busy at work. “How did you get my number??!!” (I thought he was magik like Madonna) What do you know. Turns out I was in the phone book too! We talked for a good long time and I could tell that he was happy to talk with someone who not only got his stuff, but who dug so much of the same music. Music is good like that. We kept in touch and he invited me to his parties and I got to ogle his record collection and I was just happy to know someone new in Philly who I admired and that was genuine and funny and weird. (I don't make friends easily)
Fast forward to 1999. Chuck tells me that he might be getting a new job and moving, but he can't talk about it. He does get the job and it’s music editor at the Village Voice and he will be moving to New York. Wow, what a gig. And if anyone is made for it, it's Chuck. On the job for about a week, he gives me a call at work. "Scott, guess what?” What? “I want you to write for me.” I’m speechless. Then I remember something: “You know that I’m not a writer, right?” It doesn’t matter to him. He is obviously insane. Based on our conversations and one fan letter, and possibly another letter that I sent along to him with a mix-tape, he wants me to write for the Village Voice ( In the two years that I had known him, we had never ever discussed writing. Ever!). And the Village Voice actually MATTERED to me. I grew up reading it thanks to a hepcat dad who always had to know who was playing at the Blue Note. But I hadn’t written ANYTHING since my one and only (miserable and failed) year of college in the go-go 80’s! And those were, you know, book reports and such. But I had to do it. I wasn’t gonna chicken out. I had nothing to lose! I had a lonely apartment, a shit job that paid me under the table, and a blossoming booze habit. Nothing to hang on to. Plus, it was for Chuck!
So, I did it. I was petrified. This wasn’t some little blurb either. This was a full page in a major newspaper! He was completely insane. What was he thinking? It took us forever to edit it over the phone. I can look at that first piece today without cringing too badly (okay, some of it makes me cringe. But there is a glimmer of hope in it), but boy was it rough. However, I surprised myself. And I might have even surprised Chuck. I don’t know if he thought I would want to keep at it or not, but he didn’t discourage me and that’s all the encouragement I needed. And I got better at it in a hurry. The editing sessions were no longer so lengthy. Those first couple of years were a whirlwind. I wrote a LOT! For me. Someone who never wrote much of anything before. It started to become truly fun too. I played with it and didn't hold back. And Chuck TRUSTED me like crazy. I worked a lot too, so most of my writing had to be done AT work, and I ended up writing on the backs of paper bags and cigarette cartons and later transcribing the stuff I had written at home (yes, I could afford a notebook, but I wanted it to look like I was working at work!). Maybe for the first time in my life I felt like I was a part of something truly worthwhile and good. I loved what Chuck was doing with the section. The chances he was willing to take. And I got to know, via e-mail, some great writers and like minds like Don Allred and Frank Kogan. Fellow oddballs. I was tickled when Chuck told me that he would have the same CDs sent to me, Frank, and Don when he knew it was something that other people might pass on or ignore and when it was something that HE really liked. I really did give it my all. I wanted to do good work cuz I saw so many others doing good work around me. I had never felt like this about anything before. I had never wanted to try so hard before.
Nothing will ever beat those first two or three years of writing for Chuck and the Voice. I was so lucky to have been able to do the stuff that I did. I never took it for granted for a minute either. I learned a lot in a short period of time. It got to the point where for the last 3 or 4 years…shit, i hope I'm not telling tales out of school. Chuck is an amazing editor and any time that he made a change in something I wrote he ALWAYS made it better and he ALWAYS asked me about it before he did it. Basically, I let him do whatever he wanted to my stuff. Cuz it was never much…but, anyway, for the last 3 or 4 years he hasn’t really touched anything I have written at all! A snip here and there for length, maybe move a sentence up or down or around every blue moon, but basically, when you get right down to it, we are talking word for word from my pen to the printing press. Long kinda convoluted pieces that ran EXACTLY as I had written them! This, in case you don't know, is rare. And it's all about trust and faith and knowing when to leave something alone. And I completely understand the editor’s urge to get a fingerprint on the finished product. But I have also been a party to fingerprints that left unsightly smudges, and Chuck NEVER did this. (And fingerprints or no, I certainly understand the need for good editing). I am not crowing by the way. I’m just pointing out that we were simpatico and he knew what he could expect of me and I tried to deliver as often as I could. There were times when I definitely dropped the ball. But hopefully not too many times (I will let others judge).
A while back, the Voice cut the space for the music section and this kinda took the wind out of everyone’s sails. I know Chuck was miserable about it. There wasn’t as much room for longer, involved pieces and I missed that. And not for ego reasons either. I missed READING other people’s long pieces and can safely say that I am better writing long than I am doing the short stuff. Writing the capsule-sized stuff and doing it well is a journalistic skill that I’m still trying to get a grip on. Robert Christgau, George Smith, and Chuck himself are amazing practitioners of the 200 words or less review. All three are fine newspaper journalists as well as critics, and I think this might have something to do with it. Even with my Decibel reviews, I can go over 400 words and this makes all the difference in the world to me. One of these days, I will write the perfect 200 word review!
I’m writing all this, in case you don’t know, because Chuck was given the boot by the new management at the Voice. Ironically, there were a few times in the last couple of years when I wanted to ask Chuck why he didn’t quit over what the “old” management was doing at the Voice. But I knew why. It's hard to leave a job you were born to do. Well, either editing the Voice music section or editing and writing for a cool music magazine a la Creem (a job that I know he has always dreamed about). Heck, the only two times I have ever been fired from a job was when I stayed too long after new owners/management came along. And I hated those jobs. And I KNEW I should leave them before the switch. It's hard sometimes. Especially when you have spent so much time and energy creating something so cool like Chuck did for the last 7 years at the Voice. It wasn’t perfect. But at it’s best, there was some amazing writing going on there with life and wit and ideas and a whole slew of amazing contributors, not all of whom were pros or lifers or "name" critics, but just people who had a way with words and who were given a chance by a great writer who happens to believe that almost anyone can tell a good story, be funny, or share what they hear to others in an interesting way if you let them and give them the space.