An interview with
Mark Jenkins (2012)
By Beppe Colli
Mar. 4, 2012
More and more often, while looking at the
horizon, I happen to think that what I'm seeing are much probably the last
rays of the twilight. Of course, it can be argued if this is really true,
and of how many - just a few, or a lot? - different sides of modern society.
We could also argue about the possibility that things placed on an inclined
plane have already reached such a velocity that there's no chance for us
to turn back the process.
What if I'm wrong? Here a good remedy is
to engage somebody in a dialogue. But whom, exactly? It goes without saying
that the ideal candidate has to possess an understanding of the internal
workings of the "engines" that's deep enough to understand what's
going on, while at the same time having the right attitude in order not
to perceive the current state of affairs as
A perfect candidate? Mark Jenkins, with whom
I had the pleasure to chat a few years ago. Our conversation at the time
had mostly - not exclusively, of course - dealt with the "internal" aspects
of making music, while this time it was my intention to have a closer look
at the "external" side of the framework when it comes to critics,
audience, and the "real world".
Mark Jenkins kindly agreed to answer my questions,
our interview being conducted via e-mail in the past two weeks.
I had a look at Wikipedia, and I found two "Mark Jenkins":
one, an American artist; the other, a Welsh musician; you are neither
of them, right? Then I followed a link to a page on the NPR website,
where I found this about you:
"Jenkins spent most of his career in the industry once known as newspapers,
working as an editor, writer, art director, graphic artist and circulation
director, among other things, for various papers that are now dead or close
to it." Since the page is dated April 14, 2009, I'm really curious to
know more about those papers that were "close to it".
There are three Mark
Jenkinses with whom I am sometimes confused. One is a travel writer -- based
in Wyoming, the last I heard. He wrote a few pieces for the Washington Post,
so I was asked if I had written them. The second is the tape-sculpture street
artist. Since we both live in Washington, people sometimes assume we're the
same person. We're not; in fact, we've never met. The third is the Welsh
musician/author. I once heard from a university librarian, asking if we were
different people. (Some of my ancestors came to the colonies from Wales,
so perhaps we're distantly related.)
It would help
if the Welsh Mark Jenkins would follow Welsh orthography and spell his name
"Marc Siencyn." Or perhaps I should. Clearly I should have used
"Mark L. Jenkins" or "M. Leoline Jenkins," or perhaps
"Toure," when I started to write professionally. It now seems too
late to change.
Among the still-breathing
papers for which I used to work, Washington City Paper seems the most threatened.
It's the weekly alternative paper in Washington, founded in 1981. It thrived
from the late 1980s into the early 2000s. It's now in much weakened condition,
as a result of various specific problems, but also because of the general
shift away from reading print on paper, especially newsprint.
As I told you in
our previous conversation, I discovered What Goes On - the column you wrote
for the Washington City Paper - totally by chance. I've noticed that my old
link to those pieces doesn't work anymore, and though I've copied a few of
them I'd really like to access the whole lot - in a way, they're part of "rock
history" now. Is there something I can do?
My former editor has
all the Washington City Paper website material for which the paper severed
the links. I haven't talked to him about it recently, but the potential is
there to move it to an active server, if anyone ever finds the time to do
I have the
unedited versions of the columns, but without HTML coding. So it would be
easier to post his versions of them than mine.
Though I obviously
liked those pieces for their "content" - and your "point of
view" - I have to admit that their generous length made it possible
for them to explore their subjects in depth. I'd like to know your opinion
about the issue of "length" when it come to writing "in the
real world". Some have talked about "censorship by word count",
but here I'm thinking more about readers' willingness to go the extra mile,
so to speak. Some say that, though the Web frees us from the (physical, also
financial) constrains of the paper, nowadays people are only interested in
very short pieces - lots of them - which in the end makes that freedom totally
redundant. What's your take on this?
Writing short is an
art, and is sometimes the best way to go. But there should be room for both.
I frequently am forced to leave things out in order to meet a limited word
count. And those word counts are often designed to leave more room for same
promo photo that every other publication will run. The web allows theoretically
unlimited lengths, but most people -- and I am one of them -- don't like
reading long articles on a computer screen.
many American publications that do "long-form" journalism any more,
and it may be just as well. I read the New Yorker regularly, and often find
its features too long.
writing, one obstacle is that subjects are more guarded these days. Tom Wolfe,
who was one of my inspirations, used to spend long periods with his subjects,
and that enabled him to write "literary" features that were nonetheless
entirely factual. These days, access is more limited, and the people themselves
are less forthcoming. I get the sense that you could follow some musicians
or filmmakers (or whomever) around for a week, and not get any more material
than you would in an hour.
What I was
attempting in "What Goes On" was more free-form, an attempt to
continue the tradition of such early-'70s rock writers as R. Meltzer (although
without so much of his brand of absurdism) and Lester Bangs. It's an approach
that has a very small constituency these days. Even on personal blogs, which
allow writer-proprietors to indulge themselves endlessly, the writing is
usually bland and brief.
I don't know
that I have the patience anymore for several-thousand-word record reviews.
But I do consider most 50-to-100-word reviews useless. Not that mine are
much longer: the album reviews I write for the Washington Post are about
210 words -- live reviews generally run about 350 -- and for Blurt usually
Style and content
matter, of course. The ultimate contemporary example of the long recorded-music
review is the "33 1/3" series of books on "classic" albums.
Of the ones I've read, a few are really good; most of them aren't.
A few years ago
I noticed you had started a new website, ReelDC, totally devoted to movies
- which at first surprised me, since in my mind you were first and foremost
a music critic. Now I see that ReelDC looks dormant. Would you mind talking
I was a film critic
for Washington City Paper from 1986 to 2008. When I stopped contributing
to the paper -- which had been sold to new owners who soon took it into bankruptcy
-- I didn't expect to write about film professionally any more. That's one
reason that I set up ReelDC in early 2008. (Another was to cover Washington's
extensive repertory film offerings, which no one else does systematically.)
But in mid-2008, I began writing film reviews for NPR.org. And since early
2011, I've been writing film features and reviews fairly regularly for the
Washington Post. Those two activities crowded out ReelDC. I'd like to revive
ReelDC, at least to cover local repertory film, but that's not likely to
happen without someone else's help.
One other reason
I began ReelDC: to teach myself HTML and CSS. That didn't work out very well.
If you look at the site, you'll see it's pretty primitive. I used to be a
graphic designer, so I figured I could master web design. But I didn't take
to it, and mastered only the basics. I should learn more, but at this point
I don't have time. And since I don't enjoy web design, I probably won't spend
much more effort on it.
I've seen you regularly
review movies for NPR, but it's not clear to me whether you also contribute
to other departments. Tell me more.
In 1996, after I left
my art-director job at Washington City Paper, I started contributing local-music
reviews to WAMU-FM, a local NPR affiliate. Soon after, I also began doing
music reviews for NPR's "All Things Considered." But that stopped
in 2000, after my NPR producer -- Bob Boilen, who now runs the
"All Songs Considered" website -- shifted his responsibilities.
I continued to do music reviews for WAMU until 2010, when my producer left
and the station stopped using non-staff contributors.
Today, my movie
reviews for NPR's website are my only pieces for the radio network.
Today I had fun
looking at the list of movies you've reviewed for NPR and I read your reviews
about 'Magic Trip': High Times With The Merry Pranksters (August 4, 2011)
and 'Mr. Foster': A Man And His Buildings (January 26, 2012). The one you
wrote about the documentary on Norman Foster reminded me that you've also
written about architecture and urbanism, but it's not clear to me what kind
of background you possess when it comes to both disciplines. Talk about this.
I'm pretty much self-educated
on all the subjects I cover. My formal education was generalist/classicist.
Living in Washington is certainly one of principal things that inspires my
interest in urbanism and architecture; it's an unusual city by American standards,
with a baroque street plan (begun by a Frenchman), relatively high population
density, and no skyscrapers. It's also in a constant uproar over development,
which is one of the major local industries and enormously influential on
city politics. I like cities, don't own a car, and am generally skeptical
of contemporary architecture -- not because of its look, per se, but because
it's so hostile to the fabric of urban life.
I suppose your
main gig nowadays is at the Washington Post - one of the most famous American
newspapers, and one of the last among the big ones left standing. What's
exactly your beat at the Post?
I have a few, actually.
I started writing for the Post as a freelancer in the mid-1980s, originally
doing "rock" music reviews (usually of less mainstream, more experimental
or non-Euro-American acts). That's mostly what I've done since, and I still
write such reviews regularly, although less than I once did. The decline
in assignments is partially, and perhaps largely, because the Post has shrunk
so much in recent years.
my relationships with various editors, I have also done music features and
film features and reviews, as well as occasional other things. Since early
2011, I've been freelancing much more for the Post, which has trimmed its
full-time staff significantly over the last few years. I used to fill in
for one of the visual-art critics when he was on vacation or indisposed;
last spring, I began writing a weekly column covering local art galleries.
I occasionally write about art museums, of which Washington has many, but
there's another critic who usually handles that.
I accessed two
of your pieces for the Post ("Musical History Tour: Joe Boyd and Robyn
Hitchcock revisit the '60s," March 8, 2011; Indian music finds its niche
in Washington area with intimate house concerts," June 24, 2011), which
made me think about the whole issue of "playing live", which is
an interesting topic, I think, in a lively place like that (once you talked
to me about two clubs, The Black Cat and 9:30, are they still going?).
9:30 (which some reckon to be the country's most successful "rock"
club) and the 800-capacity Black Cat are still thriving. There are also a
number of smaller clubs, as well as various part-time spots. In the last
year, two new largish venues have opened, and a third will debut in April.
Fillmore, which opened in September 2011, is part of a chain owned by Live
Nation, the country's largest concert promoter. It had another venue here
for years, but that closed in 2006 when its neighborhood, a warehouse-turned-club
district, was slated for massive redevelopment. (See urbanism answer above.)
Live Nation and 9:30 are bitter rivals, fighting over the former's control
of most of the country's outdoor amphitheaters ("sheds," in industry
parlance). So far, the Fillmore doesn't seem to be hurting 9:30 and the Black
Cat much. All three are stand-up clubs, with only a few seats.
9:30 began booking shows at U Street Music Hall, a club that specializes
in electronic dance music. It's also in negotiations to book a venue that's
planned for another section of town that's being redeveloped.
new place is the 500-capacity Hamilton, which caters to an older crowd that
likes to sit down, be served full meals, and listen to music from the '50,
'60s, and '70s. It's in direct competition with a suburban club, the Birchmere,
which offers the same formula (although it's a little less swanky). The Birchmere
is where Joe Boyd and Robyn Hitchcock did their act last year.
In April, the
Howard will open with flexible setup that allows either standing or seated
shows; it also has a full kitchen. A long-closed bare-bones theater that
once served an African-American clientele, it's being dramatically upscaled.
I think it's
remarkable that the existing clubs survive, and are doing enough business
to draw new competitors. The baby boomers still go to shows, although they
like to be comfortable these days, and can afford ticket prices that sometimes
strike me as astonishing. (The Hamilton's top price so far has been $100.)
And younger fans, who often seem to be intravenously attached to their phones
and TVs, do like to see their favorites in the flesh. (I observe that, even
in the presence of their idols, many young listeners still seem most engaged
by their phones; they text their friends and take pictures of each other
as much as they look at the stage.)
who sees live music regularly, I don't especially want to hear musicians
simply reproduce their recordings. And I'm bored by a lot of music that's
essentially pre-programmed. Rather than take musical risks, however, a lot
of contemporary performers use showmanship to distract from their music's
predictability. The results range from dull to laughable, but maybe I wouldn't
feel that way if I hadn't been going to concerts for decades.
When it comes to
the topic of their financial survival, playing live was considered to be
the only possible hope for musicians, in an age when sales of music are rapidly
disappearing. Selling T-shirts, and self-produced CDs, at their gigs would
make them solvent. From where you stand, how do you assess the current situation?
I don't have anything
novel to say about this. There are many ways to make a living as a musician
these days, but performances, selling merchandise, and licensing songs to
movies and TV shows and commercials seem to be the big ones. Obviously, Adele
made a lot of money from her last CD. But most recording artists don't.
It's not a
huge change for low-on-the-food-chain alt- and art-rock acts. Yet even they
can no longer realistically hope for a fluke bestseller, or to accumulate
a catalog that sells slowly but steadily.
And yet the
volume of music keeps increasing, as does the number of bands on the road.
The shifts in the technologies that support the music industry have widened
the gap between the haves and have-nots. Fundamentally, though, it seems
the business has changed more for record companies than for musicians.
The way I see it,
when it comes to "popular arts" such as music and movies, newspapers
and magazines increasingly employ "inspired amateurs"
instead of skilled professionals - J. Hoberman being the most recent case
of a respected critic that was let go. Do you see this trend as one that
has long passed the point of no return?
Yes. I don't know
that the new writers are "amateurs," but they tend to be younger,
less experienced, and less knowledgeable. Hoberman may be a special case;
he's one of my favorite critics, but also a "difficult" one who
probably turned off younger readers.
most readers want a simple up-or-down review. They often grouse about more
nuanced, more informed writing. Yet there is a generational divide. The Post
recently published a letter from a 62-year-old music fan who complained that
he doesn't understand the paper's album reviews or the choices for live reviews.
(He wanted coverage of a recent Ray Manzarek/Robbie Krieger gig at the Birchmere;
I probably wouldn't have assigned that one either, if the choice had been
much of a market for the critics who began in the 1960s and '70s, mixing
an enthusiasm for pop culture with a deeper understanding of its precedents.
I often fantasize about a national niche publication that would provide an
outlet for such writers. The alternative papers, by and large, no longer
do. But it's hard to coordinate reviews of art and indie films, which dribble
across the country after opening, usually, just in New York and/or L.A.
One irony is
that, in dumping experienced critics, newspapers probably aren't winning
younger readers. The Post runs much coverage of pop, electro and hip-hop
acts that appeal to people under 25. But most of their fans don't read the
Post, and are unlikely ever to do so. And while local Katy Perry followers
might find a Post piece about her on the web, they're more likely to find
some other publication's. When it comes to pop culture, the web destroys
any particular connection with local papers.
You own a turntable.
What do you play on it?
almost nothing. I like vinyl, but it's complicated to use so many formats.
Most of the music I review these days arrives via download, and I listen
to it on a computer or an MP3 player. I also have an MD player-recorder
(these days used mostly to record interviews, although I sometimes listen
to mix MDs). I still have a lot of records, but much of the music on them
has been reissued on CD, and it's usually easier to reach for the CD. I
would pull out older records more often if I listened to more older music,
but because of my workload I play mostly new stuff.
of formats bothers me. (There's even a mini-revival of cassette tapes!) I
grew up with records, magazines, and paperback books, and liked the fact
"content" was cheaply and widely available. I don't approve of
DRM, limited-edition releases, or exclusive availability of certain music
through single e-retailers or websites. Theoretically, "everything" is
available on the web, but in practice I don't find that's true. Part of the
problem, of course, is the sheer abundance. There's just so much silt to
© Beppe Colli 2012
| Mar. 4, 2012