An interview with
Mark Jenkins (2005)

By Beppe Colli
Sept. 11, 2005

I clearly remember the day when I first became aware of Mark Jenkins and of What Goes On, his online biweekly column that appears in the Washington City Paper: on that day I was busy doing a Web search about Sofia Coppola's then-new movie, Lost In Translation. Titled Knowing The Score, Jenkins's (extremely well-written) piece offered a perceptive analysis of the movie, while arguing that it had been the critics' undervaluation of the role played by music in this film - not to mention their lack of knowledge about the music itself - that had proved to be the stumbling block in their interpretation of it. Mind you, it's not that I agreed with each and every point made by the author. But the piece offered a distinctive perspective.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Knowing The Score was not a chapter in a column about film, but about music. And so it was that I started my exploration of the What Goes On archives. Of course, I also kept myself up-to-date by visiting the paper's website at regular intervals.

All the installments in What Goes On offer clear, thoughtful prose. A distinctive point of view that's never afraid of being unpopular but that never considers being unpopular as its main goal. From Television to the Velvets, from Payola to Starbucks, from Lollapalooza to The Hives, Jenkins's column definitely covers a lot of ground.

And so, as soon as I considered myself to be reasonably familiar with his column, I thought about asking Mark Jenkins a few questions. He agreed, and our recent e-mail conversation can be read below.

As a first question, I'd like to ask you about your background. The only thing I know about you is what you wrote in one of your columns (07 21 00, Who Wants Yesterday's Blurtings?): "Yes, I was a Bangsian, which means a Meltzerian, too". (...) "Bangs published a few of my pieces in Creem, and I published outtakes by both Bangs and Meltzer in a fanzine I ran". Would you mind elaborating?

I started reading Creem in the early '70s, when I was in high school. I submitted reviews to Creem and to Fusion (a little-remembered rock monthly based in Boston) and had a few published in both publications.

At the time, there was little distance between "professional" rock magazines and amateur "fanzines." I published a fanzine called Hype, and corresponded with lots of fanzine and professional writers. (This was done mostly by letter in those days, although Bangs used to telephone me occasionally.) Both Bangs and Meltzer wrote prolifically then, and sometimes sent me their outtakes for publication in Hype. Among the pieces I ran were Meltzer's account of traveling with producer/performer/scam artist Kim Fowley on a promotional tour, and Bangs's proposal to incarcerate rock stars in concentration camps. (This was long before computerized information retrieval went mainstream, but I probably have copies on paper someplace.)

As Hype became bigger and more ambitious, it also began appearing less frequently. The last issue was published around 1975. Since then, I've written for a lot of publications on a lot of subjects.

I know next to nothing about the newspaper on which you write, the Washington City Paper. Is it in any way comparable to the Village Voice?

Yes, it's much like the Village Voice. It's a weekly "alternative" tabloid, of the sort that is published in most major American cities as well as many hip smaller cities and towns, notably ones with universities. These publications became much more formulaic in the '80s and '90s, and began to be acquired by two chains, New Times and Village Voice Media. (The latter, of course, owns the Voice.) Currently, there are rumors that the two chains will merge. Washington City Paper is owned by the Chicago Reader, one of the biggest alternative weeklies, which is not part of the two largest chains.

The Voice started in the '50s, and is the longest-running such publication. It was followed in the '60s by so-called "underground" newspapers, which were linked to the anti-Vietnam-war movement, drug culture, sexual liberation, and of course, psychedelic rock. (In DC, there were the Washington Free Press and Quicksilver Times.) In the early '70s, these publications became more professional and less ideological, and were renamed "alternative." After several DC alternative weeklies came and went, Washington City Paper was founded in 1981, and eventually became established and profitable.

If I'm not mistaken, What Goes On, your biweekly column, started in 1996. Is it online only? Would you mind talking about it? Do you contribute other stuff to the Washington City Paper?

It started as an online column, when City Paper decided to put original writing on its website. That was, as you note, in 1996. For a period of about a year in the early '00s, it also ran in the paper, but then returned to being online only.

I write film reviews for City Paper weekly. I also write less frequently for the paper about music, art, books, and other subjects. I used to write a lot about urban development and design issues, but don't do much of that any more (although I wish I did).

The web column is a different kind of writing than the print reviews, and I frequently feel that I'm not really ready to write the latest column - that I don't have enough information, or I haven't thought enough about the topic. That's the principal reason that the "biweekly" schedule often slips.

I also keep meaning to add short reviews of CDs, and almost never get around to it. I did it faithfully for awhile, and found it incredibly time-consuming.

Do you currently contribute to other magazines/newspapers?

I write regularly for the Washington Post, DC's dominant daily, mostly but not exclusively about music, and review music intermittently for Blender (a national music monthly) and Time Out New York (a New York weekly). I review local CDs for WAMU-FM, a "public" radio station in DC. A lot of this stuff is available on the respective webpages:;; and Alas, City Paper and the Post charge for access to their archives. (That's anything that's more than two weeks old for the Post; a month for City Paper.)

Since we mentioned both Bangs and Meltzer: What was your impression of Almost Famous?

I hope you don't mind if I recycle my City Paper review here. I could paraphrase or revise it, but I think the original review presents my opinion best:

Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous should bewilder only two groups: People who don't like rock music. And people who do.

The sunniest movie ever made about drug abuse, sexual degradation, and rock'n'roll suicide, Almost Famous is the lightly fictionalized, mostly comic tale of Crowe's first road trip as a 15-year-old Rolling Stone correspondent. It's set in 1973, a year the film depicts as both a personal watershed and a musical delight. Yet the writer-director is sufficiently unsure of his cultural history to introduce the anti-Crowe, gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs, as the story's nagging conscience.

Both Bangs and Crowe grew up in the San Diego area, and did indeed know each other. But Bangs (impersonated energetically if unconvincingly by Philip Seymour Hoffman) went East, first to Detroit and the anti-corporate-rock Creem and then to New York and the radical-chic Village Voice. While Bangs became a passionate scold, Crowe stayed in California and developed a career as a rock courtier. In the movie, Bangs appears periodically to warn young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) that ambitious rock stars "are not your friends.'' Of course, Crowe's rock-journalism career was dependent on the pretense that they were.

At their first meeting, Bangs informs Miller that the kid has started writing about rock just in time for its "death rattle.'' Yet Crowe has said that one of the motivations for the movie was to rebut detractors of early-'70s pop music. The movie has almost as many song cues as High Fidelity, from The Chipmunk Song and Brenton Wood's Oogum Boogum to Black Sabbath's Paranoid and the Brian-less Beach Boys's Feel Flows. A few of these tunes are used ironically, but more should be. Perhaps the film's most preposterous moment comes on the tour bus, when William joins amiable roadies, fresh-faced groupies, and the members of the heavy-rock quartet Stillwater in singing along to Elton John's mawkish Tiny Dancer. Crowe must know better, but he insists on portraying early-'70s pop as one big happy family, as if FM rock hadn't already permanently ruptured the consensus.

Stillwater is a composite of the bands that Crowe shadowed in his early days at Rolling Stone, including the Eagles, the Allman Brothers, and Led Zeppelin. The band is essentially reduced to charismatic lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), with quarrelsome lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) provided for comic relief. Crowe has said the film is about fame and fandom, but you couldn't tell that from watching Stillwater or Miller. The band is depicted as indeed "almost famous,'' worthy of only slightly more respect than Spinal Tap, and if Miller's a fan he never lets on. He's glad to be part of the traveling circus, but doesn't really seem to care who's in the spotlight.

In fact, William worships not Stillwater but Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the supernaturally benevolent groupie who loves Russell when the guitarist's wife isn't around. This premise puts the director on familiar ground. Like Say Anything, Singles, and Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous features the story of an earnest young man who's madly smitten with a woman of whom he is somehow unworthy. (In real life, the average-looking Crowe is married to hard-rock beauty Nancy Wilson, guitarist for Heart.) William is so enchanted that a scene in which he watches as the suicidal Penny has her stomach pumped is presented as a moment of romantic rapture.

That's both funny and sweet, which are the strongest emotions this genial film can muster. Almost Famous seems almost uninterested in rock'n'roll, except as a backdrop the director can render with some accuracy, but sycophantic journalism is another matter: Crowe offers not only Bangs but his own mother as enemies of corporate-rock hype; leftist Puritan Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand, shrill even by the standards of her previous work) battles furiously to shield her son from the great rock'n'roll swindle. Despite these homages, however, Crowe's real muse is Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who appears in a brief cameo, offering a silent benediction for the movie's sanitized version of rock's pre-punk doldrums.

I'd like to ask you some general questions, using quotes from your columns as starting points. Talking about the Beatles Anthology sets and the Velvet Underground box set, you wrote: "Plenty on these discs is inessential, but not their fundamental message: that listening to pop music and thinking about it are complementary activities". (02 21 97, Know Too Much About History) Do you find nowadays this to be a common attitude on the part of the listeners?

The truthful answer is that I don't know. My non-critic friends who are very involved with popular music do think a lot about the subject, but they're probably not typical. I suspect that many music fans only contemplate aspects of music that I would find superficial. Pop music is show-biz to a greater extent than it has been since the 1950s, and the critical sensibility that developed with 1960s rock has certainly diminished. But it's also true that most pop-music consumers never cared very much about theory and history, and the percentage of people who are interested in such things probably hasn't changed. What has happened - at least in the United States - is that the marketing machinery has become much more efficient, even ruthless. Thus rock criticism has been effectively marginalized. In the late '60s and '70s, even troublemakers like Bangs and Meltzer were accepted as part of the process. Now mainstream U.S. magazines (both music and general-interest) avoid that sort of writing, and rock criticism that's considered too irreverent or too intellectual is banished to fanzines or websites. There are more critical voices than ever, but they're much less likely to reach the mainstream.

I think quite a few people - not to mention music writers - would disagree with what you wrote here: "Like novelists in the wake of the wildly inventive early 20th century, contemporary rockers proceed not so much as if nothing ever happened but as if nothing ever will again. Sometimes it works. But it's not exactly the makings of a stirring saga". (11 28 00, What's the Story, Modern Rock?) Would you mind elaborating?

In the 20th century, many art forms reached a crisis point: Painting became pure abstraction and then vanished altogether into conceptual art; conservatory music was dictated by arcane theories that uninitiated listeners simply couldn't comprehend; novels became dense and unreadable - codes to be cracked rather than stories to be enjoyed. In its less rigorous way, rock did the same thing: It grew from simple songs, rooted in blues, country, and pop, into experimental forms that drew on classical, jazz, avant garde, and sheer noise. This sort of radical stuff still exists, but it failed to change what most people listened to - just as James Joyce didn't kill the romance novel, or Marcel Duchamp destroy the landscape painting. So today "modern rock" bands make music that sounds pretty much like what their predecessors did in the '60s and '70s. Musicians who play "emo," punk-funk, nu-metal, or even electro-lounge-worldbeat-trip-hop may use technology somewhat differently, but they're not redefining pop music, or stretching its boundaries. The mainstream goal now is to write catchy songs, not to expand, escape, or shatter the form. The idea that rock can become something unprecedented is essentially forgotten.

Perhaps I've just heard too much music. It's possible that fans who don't remember the '60s and '70s perceive a sense of "progress'' in today's popular music that I just don't hear.

This, I think, is an idea with which it's impossible to disagree: "These days, the idea of a prestige artist is almost quaint. (...) Releasing albums that could (but don't) engage a mainstream audience seems at best an obsolete form of philanthropy". But what do you mean exactly when you say: "Most contemporary critics are either trying to devise rationales for liking best-selling teen-pap and thug-hop or seeking out the most obscure varieties of nonselling "pop.""? (01 16 01, Last of the Prestige Rock Stars)

I think critical rock writing, at least in the U.S. and the U.K., has split between the obscurantists and the populist-sociologists. The most fervent desire of the former, who mostly inhabit fanzines and websites, is to be ahead of the curve, even if that means embracing music whose only appeal is its lack of appeal. The other camp, whose practitioners range from quite cynical to utterly sincere, insist on liking whatever sells in large quantities, because they believe on some level that popular taste is infallible. (Even if the music's no good, the fact that people like it gives it value.)

One interesting thing about writing about popular music (and pop-art forms, especially cinema) is that you can switch between - or blend - the artistic and the sociological. You can write only about a song's formal qualities, or entirely about its social significance, or do both. I don't automatically reject either approach. I try to negotiate the arcane as well as the overexposed, although there's so much music out there now that it's impossible to do justice to either one.

But I do believe that music that sells in large quantities can be insignificant. For one thing, popular taste is easily manipulated. (In the U.S., there's just been another round of payola cases.) Also, pop music that didn't sell in its time can remain influential - the obvious example is the Velvet Underground - while chart-topping stuff can fade. In the long term, I suspect that Britney Spears (for example) won't matter. But then I never understood why all those academics were interested in Madonna.

Talking about a recording by Angus MacLise - The Velvet Underground's original drummer - you wrote: "It's safe to say that a long-lost recording by, say, Franz Ferdinand's original drummer will not have even that impact, circa 2040". (I don't think too many would dispute this.) Then you write: "But it's also true that '60s and '70s rock - especially '60s and '70s underground rock - has qualities that its antecedents lack: the urgency of inventing something from scratch, the drama of battling a hostile society, the power of going some place no band had gone before". (10 01 04, A Night to Reconsider) Well, what happened later? And what's your opinion about Franz Ferdinand?

The answer to #7 sort of covers this. I think that '60s and '70s rock enjoyed a unique context. Musicians were defining the style for the first time, expanding dramatically on its sources, and adding a wide range of outside influences. (One example: Before the Beatles and the Byrds, few Americans or Britons had ever heard Indian music.) Also, they were transforming the recording studio from a documentary device into a sort of musical instrument. And this was the era in which the post-war baby-boom generation came of age, significantly shaped by student unrest, sexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs, and (especially in the U.S.) the civil-rights and anti-war movements. This combination of musical and social change gave the music an urgency that contemporary rockers are hard-pressed to achieve.

I recently interviewed Gang of Four's Andy Gill, and we discussed how many current bands are influenced by Gof4's style, but none by its politics. Not every band has to sing "fuck Bush," but the punk-funk and new-wave revivalists lack the sense of commitment of the music they imitate.

So I think Franz Ferdinand is skilled, clever, and kind of dull. I'd rather the band borrowed fewer riffs and more attitude from its predecessors.

Do you think that, in an age when one can download MP3s of practically any band, reading some critic's opinions can still be considered a worthy occupation? And: In a visual age where poor literacy is said to be increasingly widespread, can musical analysis in print still be regarded as relevant?

Of course I think that rock criticism is still worthy and relevant. But criticism fulfills two functions at once, even if the two are sometimes at cross purposes: It publicizes and describes new works - albums, films, or whatever - and it analyzes them. I'm sure that the majority of readers are (and always have been) more interested in the description than the analysis. For decades, Britain had more (and more influential) music publications than the U.S. because it had such limited radio. People needed to read about music that they had no opportunity to hear (unless they bought it). As the U.K. gained more radio channels, followed by Internet music sites, the music weeklies lost clout. Most of them, in fact, went out of business.

The issue of "poor literacy" - or "aliteracy," the growing tendency of the literate to not use their skills - is a big one to address here. But as a film and art critic, I don't think that images can replace words. The ability to construct verbal/literary arguments is essential.

If you just want to know what a song sounds like, however, sound clips will always be more effective than written descriptions. Perhaps the two can work together, as they're supposed to at webzines such as Slate (, for which I've written occasionally. So far, however, that synergy hasn't developed very far. In fact, it probably works better on the radio. I do approximately five-minute reviews that usually include five 20-to-30-second clips. That format isn't perfect, but at least I'm certain that listeners will know what the music sounds like.

Who, in your opinion, is doing relevant work today when it comes to music criticism?

There are a lot of smart, informed pop-music critics out there, but most of them don't get to show what they can do - at least in the publications I read. Editors and publishers keep pushing to keep critical pieces short, punchy, and unambiguous - which is suitable only for outright raves or utter pans (and they rarely run the latter).

A lot of rock critics I used to read with pleasure seem to no longer write, and a few who still do seem to have lost their minds. Some names of current writers whose work I usually find interesting: Douglas Wolk, David Fricke, Sasha Frere Jones, RJ Smith, Dennis Lim, Richard Gehr - but it's really hard to tell what they can do, since most of them are usually trapped in formats that allow them 50 to perhaps 200 words. (Why are there no women on that list? It has something to do with the fact that are so few women writing pop-music criticism these days, at least in the U.S. publications that I see.) I used to read the British music press, but these days I rarely do, so I don't know who's writing there.

That list of writers is not definitive, and there are probably some great pop critics out there whose work I don't know. But there certainly aren't any I follow the way I used to follow Meltzer and Bangs.

© Beppe Colli 2005 | Sept. 11, 2005

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