Interview: Anthony DeCurtis

Anthony DeCurtis, photo: Deborah Feingold Anthony DeCurtis has been writing music critics and esseys for many newspapers and magazines, among them for New York Times, Vibe and for the last almost 40 years for Rolling Stone magazine, for that he was also editor.
I was especially aware of him when I read the preface to the music study Reading Rock'n'Roll. Recently I have read his excellent biography Lou Reed: A Life. Therefore I asked him to do this interview, it was done in the hot July of 2018.

I read somewhere, that in 1975, when Patti Smith album Horses came out, she came to see Bloomington to do a performance and you got to write about her. Do you still remember, why do you want to write about her, about her music, gig...?
It was actually in 1976. I was in graduate school at Indiana University, and she came to play there. I always thought I would like to write about rock & roll, and when I heard Horses, it blew me away. I thought I could get an assignment at the school newspaper to write about Patti because I was sure there wouldn't be too much competition to do it. It was the first "interview" I ever did, and I had no idea what I was doing. I'm pretty sure I still have the tape somewhere. Patti was very high and couldn't focus, to say the least. I smoked weed with Lenny Kaye, however, and we've subsequently become friends. It was, as they say, a learning experience. The show was tremendous.

  Your music writing and she herself are here till nowadays. What was your experience through the time, your journey through music, culture and rock criticism? Did you write from your own experience, feelings, knowledge, emphaty and love about rock and roll?
My writing inevitably grows out of my own experiences, but I've tried, for the most part, not to write too much about myself. I try to understand what the artist is trying to do and render that perspective. I feel that my best writing is about the music and the artists whom I love the most.

Are you satisfied with your writing and how do you develope your writing process through the years? Do you have any feedback from readers, musicians? Back then and compare to today?
I'm generally happy with my own writing, though I'm always trying to improve. Clarity is what I strive the most to attain. Over the years I've gotten plenty of feedback, the vast majority of which has been positive. I think artists appreciate the effort I make to comprehend their music and their intentions. At this point pretty much everyone I interact with is appreciative of my writing. There wouldn't be much need for them to deal with me if they weren't.

Is it necessary to be a fan of a certain musician, artist, bend to do a „proper" job as a journalist? Not necessarily. You might have something interesting or worthwhile to say about an artist or style of music you don't like. That's not much fun for me, however, so I generally try to write about things I enjoy and try to help my readers see what they might like about it. I've certainly written plenty of negative reviews, but that doesn't excite me.

There is a difference between academic writing and magazines writing; you do both excellent; and how about the difference between doing an inteview or reviews? What do you think? And what do you prefere?
Academic writing is for a specialized audience, so you can assume more knowledge on the reader's part. Writing in more popular contexts requires keeping in mind that readers might not know. As for interviews, it's a thrill to speak to artists you admire. In many of the interviews I've done, I've had the time to dive deep into all the aspects of their music and their lives that are meaningful to me. That said, I believe that critical writing -- which is to say, ideas -- is at the heart of everything I do.

You talk and interview Lou Reed many times. Is it the often repeatable cliche, that you should never meet your idols, friends true? What are your thoughts on this?
For the most part, I always got along well with Lou. That was not true for many journalists, I realize, and I can't tell you how many horror stories I've heard about things he said and did during interviews. Generally speaking, the artists whom I've met have been exactly what I hoped they'd be like. One notable exception is Van Morrison, who really was a jerk for no discernible reason. He was probably my greatest disappointment.

Tell me something more about your friendship with Lou Reed. Are these conversations convince you, that after his dead, you decide to write a book about him?
I would not have written the book while he was alive. For many complicated reasons, he would not have wanted it done -- he didn't want any books to be written about him -- and it would have been painful to write. When he died, however, I thought he deserved a serious biography that took him and his work as seriously as he regarded someone like Delmore Schwartz, the poet who was his professor at Syracuse University. That was the goal. I think Lou ultimately saw himself as a writer, and my own training was in literature. That's one of the reasons we got along so well. Between that and my background in music - not to mention knowing him - I thought I could do a good job.

What do you think...did he somehow knew, that you might write a book about him one day? How thin is that path between distance (from the subject) and empathy?
I don't think he thought about my writing a book. We never discussed it. Distance and empathy are the qualities that Lou brought to his own writing, and I tried to achieve that in my rendering of him. I tried to understand him as well as I could and to render him honestly, without judgment. I researched the aspects of him I didn't know about as deeply as I could, and I spoke to dozens of people who knew him very well and worked with him closely at every point of his life. Then I tried to tell his story as truly as possible.

In the book, there are some nasty things about him, we know some of that, but you kinda show us a whole, naked picture about him; no judge, no false opinion, just observation and straight facts. How did you pick these moments in his life... fragments, that all per se tell us a story?
I tried to choose examples that were both compelling in their own right and that said something about him as a person, that communicate some truth about him. Gradually, those moments were meant to accumulate as the book goes on and provide the reader an understanding not just of what he did, but why he did it. I tried to allow the points of view of the many people I interviewed to make an impact as well. My favorite interview subjects were the ones who weren't afraid to offer an interpretation of why Lou behaved the way he did. But Lou's nastiness was only part of the story, and part of the man. I tried to convey his kindness, humor, intelligence and artistic genius as strongly as I could. There was nothing one-dimensional about Lou, and that's one of the reasons why he's such a fascinating subject. Darkness and light mixed inextricably within him.

Bettye Kronstad in Lou Reed, Januar 1973, photo: Anton Perich While writing, do you have any concerns, that people (close ones) don't agree with your selections of fragments, life's situations etc...?
Finally, you write a book for yourself. Obviously, you want everyone to love it, but as a writer, your first responsibility is to create the book you wanted to create. After that, you have no control over how people will think about it, so I didn't give that much thought. I definitely wanted everybody I interviewed to feel that their thoughts about Lou were honestly and fairly rendered. I had no desire to manipulate people into taking a point of view about him. Beyond that, they're entitled to think whatever they want about the book.

You wrote an extraordiniray book of Lou Reed, but still...what do you appreciate most in him?
His songs. Without those, no one would have cared about any of the personal stuff. His body of work is an extraordinary achievement, and I wanted that to be evident at every moment in the book. Amazingly, I've gotten some criticism for spending as much time on his music as I did. I think that's hilarious. Why would you read the book if you didn't care about that? All the personal stuff is meant to help you better understand the man who did all that great work.

Lou Reed loved Hamlet, it's writen in your book...what about you, Anthony DeCurtis, what do you love?
I certainly share Lou's love for Shakespeare, and Hamlet is probably my favorite play. Music, books and films are the things I care about the most.

Ellen Willis first book is named after a Velvet Underground song („Beginning to See the Light") and since then many female critics emerged. Yet, they are sorely under represented in many anthologies and histories, accounting for only four of fortysix contributors to the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock&Roll, fivr of eightyone to the Penguin Book of Rock&Roll Writing and no contributors (but one coeditor, Holly George Warren) to the Rolling Stone Album Guide. What are your thoughts about that?
I'll speak primarily about my own experience as an editor at Rolling Stone and elsewhere. During the five years I edited the record review section there, I tried to bring in as many new writers as I could manage, many of whom were women and African Americans. But I never wanted them to think they were being used for that reason -- and they weren't being used for that reason. I thought they had something to say. As for those books -- a couple of which I co-edited, along with Holly -- I needed to call on the most established names I could for a variety of reasons, and most of those writers were men. I think the quality of the work they produced is very strong, and that's primarily what I care about. (Just as an aside, I like some of Ellen Willis's work, but I'm not her biggest fan.) I'd feel much worse if someone made a credible case for why the writers I used didn't do a good job, rather their gender or race. Also, those books were done 25-30 years ago. I might make different decisions now, but I don't feel bad about the ones I made then.

I'm a girl see and my eye zeroes in on boy beauty," wrote once Patti Smith in the Edgar Winter review. As in her music, Patti Smith created new possibilities for rock writing. Writing about rock as culture, or as a myth or as a society or whatever else matter.  What is your „start" position while writing about the subject?
I start by writing as precisely as I can about whatever it is I'm supposed to be writing about. I assume that's what the reader wants to know about. My thoughts about society, culture, whatever, inevitably work their way into that. But there's a reason Patti Smith became a songwriter. Zeroing in on "boy beauty" is a fantastic, sexy motivation, but I'm not sure a review of an Edgar Winter record is the most productive place to give it expression.

Times they are changing; internet now offers new means of exchange between artist and fans and a lot of freshest, new rock writing can be found on music sites all over the globe. What do you think about that; what can you, or for instance, the magazine  Rolling Stone do? And what do you think about rock music nowadays and rock writing?
I think Rolling Stone can best serve its readers by doing what it's always done - write as intelligently as possible about music and the context in which that music is created. I haven't been writing much for the magazine in the last few years, but the work that appears in the magazine seems very strong to me. As for music itself, there's plenty of great stuff around. There's just so much of it, for better or worse. Fewer gate-keepers is probably a good thing, but at this stage in my life, I could use some good curators. I probably don't read as much rock criticism as I used to -- again, there's so much of it. In general, I'd love for the writing -- as writing -- to be stronger, but people seem as excited as they've ever been to write about music, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that.

  How do you feel at this point about your future?
That's such a funny question. I just turned 67, so my primary thought about my future is that I wish there was going to be more of it. But I'm having fun as both a writer and a teacher. With the Lou book and a few other things, last year was one of the best years of my life. I can only hope that will continue.


Varja Velikonja
(Rock Obrobje, July 2018)

Photos from the top to the bottom:
Anthony DeCurtis; credit Deborah Feingold
Patti Smith, credit Robert Mapplethorp
Bettye Kronstad and Reed at the party following Reed’s Alice Tully Hall performances, January 1973; photo by Anton Perich