(For Part 1, click here.)
RM: Okay we’re back with the Alt Rock Chick. Do you mind if I call you “Alt?”
RM: I wanted to talk about your writing, which is what attracted me to you in the first place.
ARC: You mean it wasn’t my ass? I’m crushed!
RM: Well, that, too, but really, your writing style is very unique. So, first, how did you learn how to write so well?
ARC: I don’t know how to answer that; I haven’t had any formal training beyond what you get in college. I’ve been reading and writing as long as I can remember; I used to write stories and poetry even when I was little, in English and French. My parents are voracious readers and they turned me on to all kinds of literature when I was growing up, so I suppose I developed a sense of what good writing is by reading great authors. I will say that it’s not as easy as it reads; I work hard on my reviews and often go back and edit them several times before publication. Finding “le mot juste” and all that.
RM: Unlike other music reviewers, you often introduce stories from your youth, about your parents, or from history before you get into the meat of the review. How did that come about?
ARC: I don’t think it was anything conscious; it was just my imagination looking for a better way. You know from reading my site that I cringe whenever I read reviews on iTunes, or Pitchfork or from Rolling Stone. They’re not only pompous and arrogant but I find them hopelessly boring. If there’s a motive behind the madness in what I do, it’s that I hope that the little stories help make the reading more interesting and help put the music in the larger context of life, because music is a part of my life, not a separate thing.
RM: Who are some of your favorite authors?
ARC: (Laughs.) Other than you? Oh, let me think. The first people who come to mind are the Symbolist poets: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarmé. Flaubert and de Maupassant for sure. My French is showing! Pauline Reage, of course. (Laughs.) I think Thomas Hardy is my favorite when it comes to the Brits. Don’t care for the Russians; they’re too windy. Ah! Pablo Neruda! I mentioned him in a review recently. I can’t say I care too much for American writers except for Toni Morrison and Vonnegut. Oh, Emily Dickinson, of course. My dad still thinks Richard Brautigan is the bees knees but I only liked Trout Fishing in America.
RM: Ever thought of writing a book on music? I mean, given your expertise, it would seem like the next logical step.
ARC: Hmm. I suppose in the back of my mind I’ve thought of collecting some of the better reviews and putting them into a volume, but that’s kind of low p for me. I’ve never thought of myself as a writer, just a music lover.
RM: You obviously do a lot of research before you write a review.
ARC: Oh, yeah! I love research! I have a lot of background information in my head from reading books on music and musicians, but I also did a lot of weird, obsessive research, like going back through the top 100 charts all the way back to the 40‘s when Billboard started doing them, and then comparing what was going on in music to what was going on at the time in society, politics and culture by reading books about the time or watching movies and television shows from back then. I did this over several years; it was kind of my version of a making a quilt! (Laughs.) Seriously, though, when you look at music in that way, I’d have to say in some ways the 1950’s was more of a revolutionary decade than the 1960’s because the music was very subversive; it was about all the things that people were in denial about back then, especially sexuality. 1960’s music really mirrored the craziness in society and in the world at the time, so a lot of the music was more in sync with the changes going on in the culture. I mean, Little Richard had no business being in the same decade as President Eisenhower or Father Knows Best.
RM: What are the most important things you’ve learned from your studies? What conclusions have you drawn?
ARC: I think the first thing is that on a very fundamental level there’s really been nothing new in popular music for a long time. When you listen to popular music in sequence, from decade to decade, there are certain people who clearly stand out as people who changed everything. I learned this in a jazz appreciation class in college. You listen to early jazz and it’s kind of muddled, like they’re feeling their way, and then Louis Armstrong comes along and it’s like he parted the clouds and brought in the light. You can only say that about very few artists: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, The Beatles, Dylan, The Ramones, maybe a few others I can’t think of right now—people who created something new that qualified as art but also expanded popular consciousness. The Delta blues guys like Robert Johnson influenced musicians but they never gained the popular recognition they deserved. Everything since the late 70′s has really come through the doors that all those other people opened. There’s been some great music during that time and even some music that should be game-changing like The Vicar’s Songbook #1, but I think the days where art is in sync with popular taste have passed.
RM: You didn’t mention Elvis.
ARC: Elvis was a front man. His value died when he went into the Army and came out a bore. The fame should have gone to Carl Perkins.
RM: I notice you gave credit to Dylan, even though he’s not on your favorite songwriter list.
ARC: (Laughs.) I get a lot of shit about that! I don’t care for his voice and I think he’s overrated as a poet, especially when you compare his stuff to real poets like Rimbaud and T. S. Eliot. But there’s no question he had a huge influence. He opened the door between folk and rock, two important strains in American music that simply had to get together sooner or later. That in turn opened the door for rockers to write better poetry and move from “baby, baby, I love you” to more interesting subjects and self-reflection.
RM: What current artist do you admire most?
ARC: Oh, there are so many! I think the one that stands out the most for me is Amanda Palmer. She’s fucking amazing, on so many levels. She’s really in a class by herself.
RM: So, what’s up next for the Alt Rock Chick?
ARC: You mean with the blog? Well, I just finished my reviews of The Stones, which has been a very educational experience.
RM: Why is that?
ARC: I’ve developed a much deeper respect for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as musicians and songwriters. I might go back and do Some Girls, but I’m iffy on that one.
RM: What else?
ARC: As far as Classic Music Reviews are concerned, I’ve got a list a mile long. I want to finish up The Kinks, from Face to Face and through their Gilbert & Sullivan period; I’m about halfway there. I want to add a few more Tull reviews, and I definitely want to get started on Miles Davis so I can expand into jazz. On the new music side, you never know, but I do know that The Connection has a new release coming out in June that I’m looking forward to. (Sighs.) So much is up in the air now because I’ll be moving to France next month.
RM: Ah! So you’ve taken the job!
ARC: Yep! I’m really excited about it. It’s something familiar but something new at the same time. It’s weird, though. On one level, it’s almost like it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I know I’ve got a shitload of stuff to do in the next few weeks to get ready but for some reason I haven’t been motivated to get it all organized, which is so not me. I’ll probably be on major overwhelm when it sinks in. Or outright panic. (Laughs.) I have been busier than shit on the blog posts, though, and I think I have enough in the queue to get me through the end of May.
RM: What made you decide to do it?
ARC: Oh, I don’t want to go into it too much right now. I’ve written about it in an upcoming post and said everything I wanted to say there. Let’s just say it’s time to move on.
RM: Sorry to see you go. We just met!
ARC: (Laughs.) I know. The good thing is that the decision to leave kinda put me in a fuck-it-all kind of mood, and that’s why I said, fuck it, let’s do the interview live. Plus, I wanted to meet you and ask you about Ringing True and Acoustic Disturbance. I’ve got Firstnighter on my list of upcoming Undiscovered Gems, by the way.
RM: Okay, but since I don’t think our readers are going to care about that, let me shut off the recorder.
ARC: Sure. Bye, everyone! Wine?
Epilogue: We relocated to the kitchen, which is pure French Provençal, dotted with porcelain in yellow and blue. She has a small iPod player in the kitchen and she played Firstnighter while asking me about several artistic choices we’d made during the making of the album. I was very impressed with her ear, for she correctly concluded that the lead guitar on “Sunshine” had to be an SG and not a Les Paul, and that the repeated chimes in the background of “Waiting at the Window” had to be a Rickenbacker. She also knew we’d used an E-bow on “Sides” and “Fill You Up” (on Last Past the Post). Right around that time the skies opened up and we were treated to a bombardment of hail accompanied by thunder. I found out that we share a fascination with thunderstorms and we talked about our favorite thunderstorm experiences.
We then chatted about Ringing True while the album “East-West” from Paul Butterfield played in the background. She spent a very long time discussing the fourth Number with me, the one that deals with violence, a topic that has been weighing on her mind lately with all the mass shootings in the headlines. We also talked about San Francisco, her home town and the place I called home during my last half-dozen years in California. We compared timelines and addresses and discovered that my home was not far from her parents’ place in Noe Valley, but I lived there during the period when she was in Southern California attending college. Somewhere in the middle of that conversation, her female partner came home, an equally striking woman of Spanish descent. They kissed and gave each other a quick update, talked about the crazy weather, then her partner excused herself with a very sunny smile. I then learned that the female partner is a live-in partner and surmised that the male partner she referred to lives elsewhere.
I felt this was a good time to leave, so we moved back to the living room and made small talk while I packed up my stuff. As I was doing this, I asked her about the pictures she had agreed to send me for the interview posts. “Oh, shit, the pictures! Do you have a scanner? Can I give you a contact sheet instead? That way you can pick whichever shots turn you on. They’ll have scratches and will look really artsy!” She left the room and brought back a contact sheet containing a dozen or so pictures from one of her erotic photo sessions. “Just mail them back to me when you’re done—but make sure I get them before May 1. Promise?” I promised.
As I was leaving, I thanked her and reached out to shake her hand. She slapped it away. “Fuck that,” she said, and grabbed me for a big hug and a kiss on my cheek.
On the drive home, I reflected on the experience and a couple of impressions stuck with me. Her presence and movement communicate a natural elegance that make her liberal use of the word “fuck” come across with surprising intensity. She is also a woman of uncommon strength, quick intelligence and remarkable beauty that combine to give her a definite aura of power, but at no time did I sense any arrogance or belief in her superiority. On the contrary, her smile and laughter are both engaging and warm, and in our private conversation she demonstrated several times that she has the ability to laugh at herself. At the same time, you also get a very clear impression that this is not someone you could manipulate or want to mess with; she’s very direct and honest, and demands the same in return. I found myself wishing I could meet her parents to learn what they did to shape her character. I also thought she’d make a great lead character for my next novel!
All in all, a remarkable afternoon with a remarkable woman. And I still don’t know her name.