John Strausbaugh with Theodore Hamm
John Strausbaugh is the former editor of New York Press. His book Rock ‘Til You Drop (Verso) is now in its second edition.
The following conversation took place on a Saturday afternoon in early February 2003, at Montero’s Bar and Grille.
Theodore Hamm (Rail): The New York Press has played an important role in the intellectual life of the city over the past decade. Tell us about your career there.
John Strausbaugh: I had written for Russ Smith at City Paper in Baltimore for about ten years, till he sold the paper in 1988 and came back up here and started the Press. I came up in ’90 and was a contributing editor, and then slowly knocked off all the people between me and the top of the totem pole. So I was editor for roughly the last four years, from ’98 to right before Christmas of 2002.
Rail: All along it was positioning itself against the Voice, yes?
Strausbaugh: Absolutely. It was clear to Russ that there was room in the city for another free weekly, and if you did it correctly, the Voice wouldn’t be able to kill you, like they did to the Soho Weekly News and various other attempts at free weeklies. He started quietly, but even though it was always pitched as the anti-Voice, we didn’t challenge them directly for a while. We let the elephant sleep, and by the time it woke up, it was too late for them to do anything about us. By ’96, when they went from a paid circulation to a free circulation, it was clear that we had made an impact. We all went out and got drunk that day.
Rail: What about the editorial slant? It was obviously anti-political correctness of any sort.
Strausbaugh: The Voice was and is so politically correct and run by that Politburo of correct thinking. It’s a Stalinist organization. So we said that we’re going to go back to the original Village Voice notion, back to Norman Mailer days, when it was a writers and editors paper. If you could write, and you had an interesting, eccentric, idiosyncratic spin on anything, you could get it into the Voice back then—and this is exactly how we ran the New York Press. It was always about strong, idiosyncratic—sometimes downright crazy—voices, with strong opinions, and usually very contrarian opinions. Very early on we started injecting some conservative thought into it, which upset the entire Upper West Side. But we felt there was room for conservative opinion, although we did have some complete right-wing crackpots like Taki—
Rail: Some people would describe Russ Smith in those terms.
Strausbaugh: Some people would, but I’ll let other people make that judgment. [laughs]
Rail: How would you describe yourself politically?
Strausbaugh: I’m an anarcho-syndicalist, so in this country I have no politics. But I saw my job as bringing in the left-wing crackpots to balance out the right-wingers. So we had Alex Cockburn on the left and Taki on the right. And I also thought that was an important thing to be doing, to bring in people from all sides. We also had plenty of people with no politics—Satanists, dominatrixes, cops, kids, etc. I wanted it to engage readers’ minds. People think New York City is a very sophisticated place, but it’s actually pretty small-town, and people can be very small-minded. They love to read opinions they already have and don’t read opinions they disagree with. We packed the paper with enough of a range of opinions so that anybody who picked it up would find something to disagree with.
Rail: You also seemed to do a lot of first-person stuff, which totally distinguished it from the Voice.
Strausbaugh: I loved the first-person stuff. At the Voice, everybody ends up towing the Politburo’s collective line on everything, and it’s made it the dull, predictable, unreadable paper that it is.
Rail: Are there any particular writers that you’re proud of introducing?
Strausbaugh: Sure. Jonathan Ames, David Sedaris, Amy Sohn, JT Leroy. Some of these are people who had written elsewhere first, but we fostered; others, we really gave them their start. We were very early on the Dave Eggers thing.
Rail: Speaking of Eggers and that crowd, how would you describe some of the main intellectual trends over the last decade or so? It seems to have gone from anti-political correctness to irony and now to irreverence, if you take The Onion or Vice Magazine as indicators.
Strausbaugh: I think you have to distinguish Eggers from the entire McSweeney’s entourage. I think Eggers is a totally sui generis, completely autochthonous genius. The wannabes are another story—some of whom do a pretty good job, some of whom don’t. I think Neal Pollack is a wonderful writer, a hilarious guy—
Rail: That’s because he has perspective on his own self-absorption. Isn’t there a danger in that whole style, of there being a lack of any perspective?
Strausbaugh: I think it works for Dave, and that’s not his problem. You can tell I’m a big Dave fan [laughter]—and I get defensive for him because he got so much shit.
Rail: I’m not interested in jumping on the bandwagon in either direction. I’m just wondering if idealism will ever be current.
Strausbaugh: Sure. There are plenty of other trends out there. Take Cabinet for example. It’s the best cultural magazine I’ve seen in years. And it’s completely without irony, showiness, etc.
Rail: When people tell us what they like about we do, they often say it's because we’re "sincere." Which of course is something we can’t emphasize, because the minute you start calling yourself sincere, you’re immediately suspect. I also wonder if such a reputation puts us out-of-sync with younger readers.
Strausbaugh: I have more faith in people than to believe that everybody who was reading McSweeney’s is now reading Vice. Who can say what the zeitgeist is, anyway? Fifty or a hundred years from now, we may know. I’m always very suspicious of people who declare that they know what it is now.
Rail: Another problem we face is how to write about politics in a lively way.
Strausbaugh: Well, we’re in a post-political era, and what can you say about politics when you’re talking about a run between Gary Hart and George Bush? God, I wish it would be Reverend Al. At least that would be fun. He’s a showman, and that’s what we need. Let’s run some Communist, Fascists, anything to make things more interesting.
Rail: Let’s talk about your book. The other day, Bill Clinton and the Rolling Stones appeared on stage together. Does that epitomize everything you’re attacking in the book?
Strausbaugh: Absolutely. The classic baby boomer/faux rocker meets the classic baby boomer/faux rock band. What a sham.
Rail: Even when they’re promoting the Natural Resources Defense Council and raising awareness about global warming, it strikes you as empty celebrity politics?
Strausbaugh: Whether or not it’s for good causes, bad rock is still bad rock. I would prefer for Mick to write them a big fat check. He can afford it. Sting can buy the rain forest and build a big Cyclone fence around it and keep everybody out—
Rail: And do yoga in the middle of it. Why does rock make you angry?
Strausbaugh: I’m 51 years old, and I grew up listening to rock and roll, playing rock and roll. I was in my first rock band at 12, my last one when I was 30. And I watched rock and roll go from being a legitimate communication device for the youth of the world to the Rolling Stones on HBO doing their MSG concert. It’s like a Civil War reenactment of Rock and Roll at this point. And it has as much to do with rock and roll as a Civil War reenactment has to do with the real horrors of battle. Rockers in general are not intellectuals, or in general politically minded, but willy nilly, rock carried some ideals with from the 60s into the 1970s, when it began to lose all values and become purely commercial entertainment.
Rail: So you watched the Baby Boom generation sort of—
Strausbaugh: Sell-out. There’s no other way to put it. And I don’t have a lot of answers in the book. The book just asks questions. Does every generation do that as they grow older? At some point do you have to cut your hair, put on a tie, get a job, get married, raise kids, and so on? Sure, but the point about the Baby Boomers is that we promised ourselves a lot more than that, and we didn’t deliver. And I use rock as a metaphor for the ways we didn’t deliver.
Rail: Especially in terms of revolution. As for rock and roll, you seem to question whether there was ever any genuine political commitment.
Strausbaugh: There was some. Look at John Sinclair and what happened to him. The Fugs were genuinely committed. There were people who cared. Not that rock and politics necessarily make the best partners. They tend not to. But what I’m saying is whether or not it was intended by the rockers, rock became a vehicle for some sort of change—political, social, mental. But it’s nothing now, it’s an entertainment vehicle.
Rail: How have rock critics responded to your book?
Strausbaugh: Some liked it, some didn’t. What most people want to do, rock critics or not, is argue for their specific heroes. "Hey man, the Allman Brothers never sold out," I got that kind of stuff. "Crosby Stills and Nash are still real, man."
Rail: What about Dylan?
Strausbaugh: He’s not a rocker. He’s a singer-songwriter who used rock, folk music, bluegrass, whatever he needed to use. So he’s sort of exempt from my argument.
Rail: He was obviously very political in his time, but now has been adopted by the establishment in whatever way.
Strausbaugh: Of course he has, he’s winning Grammies and so on. But he ceased to mean anything about 20 or 25 years ago. He may occasionally put out a good record, but he doesn’t really mean anything.
Rail: So what about his "Masters of War" era?
Strausbaugh: People tell me that it’s a nostalgic argument to remember what he was once doing. I think that’s crazy. Of course we should remember that. It shows why he’s not important now. You may like him, but he’s not important. You may still like the Rolling Stones—God knows why—but they’re not important.
Rail: You’re not referring to me specifically, are you? [laughter]. But are there any counter-examples out there, of rockers—or other boomers— who haven’t sold out?
Strausbaugh: There are still old rock and rollers who are still good, although I can’t think of any at the moment. Four or five years ago I would have said Iggy Pop, but he’s gone downhill. He finally succumbed. And of course there are people who carried on the ideals in some sort of quiet, more adult way. Ellen Willis, whose work I discuss in the book, would argue that "Look, there was never going to be a revolution, but what there was, was rebellion. And as people got older, that translated into a cultural revolution." And you can’t deny that things are very different now on a cultural level than where they were in the 60s. And I buy it.
Rail: Is this another way of saying that the middle class is never going to be the agent of revolution?
Strausbaugh: Yes, what did we have to revolt against? C’mon, life was great—you’re getting laid, you’re smoking dope, you’re getting a free education. What’s to rebel against?
Rail: So let’s talk about the Marcuse argument a bit—that what starts out as radical inevitably becomes subsumed into the status quo. But you seem to be suggesting that culture can never be radical at all.
Strausbaugh: By its nature, any culture draws all things toward the center. So what starts out as radical and on the edges is always drawn in. That’s what culture does—it absorbs and ameliorates and accommodates all sorts of rebellious, revolutionary, antinomian movements. So can culture itself be radical? No, of course not. But the edges of culture can be, and individuals can be as well.
"Sympathy for the Devil" comes on the jukebox.
Rail: So what’s wrong this song?
Strausbaugh: There’s nothing wrong with this song. It’s a great song. The problem is the 60-year-old Rolling Stones in 2003 pretending to be the devil. I’m making a genre-specific argument—that rock and roll is youth music, not adult music. Adults can like it, but they can’t generate it. Over the age of 30, it’s a very rare rock and roller who’s able to do it with any credibility. Lust, confusion, anger—rock and roll is pure physical energy. People say to me, "What about the blues guys, or the old jazz men?" These are completely different genres. Rock is more like the ballet or basketball, where they don’t let the old guys play. Because they can’t do it. And you just can’t rock and roll when you’re 60 years old.
Rail: Maybe they’ll invent a musical Viagra.
Strausbaugh: Yeah, but Viagra is faking it, too. That ain’t a real hard-on, it’s a fake. You might as well use a dildo. Can you say stuff like that in The Brooklyn Rail? [laughter].
"You May be Right" plays on the jukebox.
Rail: What about Billy Joel? He never rocked, did he?
Strausbaugh: He’s not a rock and roller at all. He’s a lounge singer. Bruce Springsteen is not a rock and roller either. He’s the epitome of mid-‘70s, the industry learned to invent something that looked and sounded like rock and roll. Springsteen is pop music. Rock and roll is made by a bunch of kids who want to get together and play rock and roll. Pop is made by a producer and an engineer and studio musicians and so on. Springsteen and Billy Joel epitomize that. Clarence Clemons, Little Steven—they’re all just session men who fake being a rock and roll band.
Rail: What about new retro bands like Candy Ass, who you seem to like? Could you call retro an extension of irony?
Strausbaugh: I love Candy Ass. Pretty much everyone who’s rocking right now is doing the retro thing. And that’s fine with me. I don’t get why twenty year olds like it. But I love The Donnas, and the total Ramones thing they’re doing. And I don’t think these bands and the garage bands that have sprung up over the last few years are doing it ironically. Neither are the White Stripes—I don’t think Jack White is being ironic. And I think he’s brilliant. It’s important for musicologists and critics that the forms are pretty well fixed, because then you have to figure out something else to say when a new band comes along. But it’s not at all important to the bands themselves, or to the experience of being in the room with The Donnas or Jack White when they’re kicking ass. There’s a formal argument and an experiential argument, and I lean towards the experiential.
Rail: So you don’t see the retro stuff as a sign that rock and roll has run its course?
Strausbaugh: No, but it’s obvious that rock and roll doesn’t have the cultural currency that it used to have. First it shifted to rap and hip hop, and it may now be moving entirely away from music, and into computer gaming and whatever the young people are into. We definitely live in a world where music is nowhere as important as it was in the 60s or 70s. Hip hop still may be, but I think it has run its course as well.
Rail: So tell us what you’re doing now.
Strausbaugh: I’m piecing together life as an independent contractor, reviewing books for the Washington Post Book World, putting together some underground funk cds that will be out in the fall. We’re focusing on B-sides and other obscure stuff from the 70s, but there’s a whole universe of funk and r & b artists out there still making records. In terms of writing, times are tough right now. Everybody is struggling in the media economy, and it’s not a good time for anyone in the city right now. But I’ve been lucky because people have been pitching me work, so I’ll be ok. I’m reinventing myself, and it’s working, and I’m having a good time.
Rail: In other words, John Strausbaugh will "not go gentle into that good night."
Strausbaugh: HELL NO.