Why Dave Marsh Matters

you must choose, brothers, you must choose

Why Dave Marsh Matters

I was reading Dave Marsh before I knew he was Dave Marsh. By that I mean I was reading him as a pre-teen before it dawned on me that I should look at bylines and then use that information to decide what to read and what I felt about reading it. (But I was, like, 11 or 12 when I was doing this stuff, so I am allowed.) In 1976 or 1977, I was in the public library on a Saturday, reading back issues of Rolling Stone, as one does (or at least I did until I got a subscription for my birthday or Chanukah) when I found a story about Patti Smith, titled “Her Horses Got Wings, They Can Fly.” I started reading it.

When I got to this paragraph, I stopped, read it again, and then went back to the byline.

Then she got pregnant. The circumstances don’t matter—she was in junior college at the time—but she had the baby without getting married and gave it up for adoption. Teenage pregnancies weren’t uncommon in South Jersey; in fact, they are just the sort of thing which happens to normal, well-adjusted girls everywhere.

I had read a lot of music writing up to that point, and there was a fair amount that made me uncomfortable, mostly when they talked about women who were musicians, or in bands. It was always a little sleazy, a little too much letting us know what the writer thought of how that woman looked or dressed. Marsh isn’t immune to this -- a couple of paragraphs above this one he describes her body as “reedy and breastless” -- but the straightforward, non-judgmental way he talked about Patti’s pregnancy made an impression on me more than the description of her body, which was actually not terrible by 1970’s standards, which weren’t great to begin with. (And there’s literally no way that story gets published in the Rolling Stone of 1976 without a description of what she looks like, but this is not an essay about Jann Wenner’s editorial decisions.)

Dave Marsh was one of my favorite writers when I was trying to be one, and he still is one of my favorite writers now that I get paid to do it. I spent years trying to write like him. I liked his directness, his bluntness, his enthusiasm for taking a position and then defending it like his life depended on it. He wrote about Bruce Springsteen a lot, which I particularly appreciated, and he was also an enormous Who fan. He was someone whose byline I deliberately followed across publications. When I was a writer for my college newspaper (shoutout to the Fordham University Observer), his publisher sent a copy of his Who biography, Before I Get Old, with a press release noting that the author was available for interviews.


Dave was exactly the same in person as he was on the page, to my surprise and delight. He had a friend show up for lunch right before our interview was scheduled and left a note with his doorman to meet them at the restaurant. I don’t remember who it was, but I do remember listening with glee to a long conversation about Elvis Presley’s eating habits (he had just written an Elvis book) and also how during the entire conversation, I was expected to have opinions and participate in the conversation. I have had plenty of these kinds of encounters in the ensuing years and way too often this behavior is rare. Usually at least one person involved in the convo will ignore you, or box you out, or make you feel dumb/uninformed. I remember bringing up something about the Kinks and his response was that he didn’t care about the Kinks and that was notable to me because 1) he didn’t pretend to like something he didn’t 2) he didn’t make me feel bad or dumb for liking something he didn’t.

After lunch we went back to his apartment to finish the interview, and he invited me to keep in touch. Somehow I managed to find the ovaries to send him my clips from the college paper, and that was how, in 1984, I ended up getting quoted in his newsletter (and later, a book) Rock and Roll Confidential. (The publication is not online anywhere, so if you run a web search on this term, what you find will not be that.) I was writing about how the Pretenders were going on tour and the only way to find out about tickets was to have MTV -- which, at the time, was only available to a very small geographic area of cable TV subscribers (which cost money) in Manhattan, and not available in the other boroughs that were not as economically advantaged/not as white. It was the kind of thing I had learned to pay attention to precisely because I had spent years reading Dave Marsh.

This brings me to a new anthology of Dave’s work, Kick Out the Jams: Jibes, Barbs, Tributes, and Rallying Cries from 35 Years of Music Writing. His first anthology, Fortunate Son, came out in 1985. KOTJ draws from his writing after that time period, from 1985-2010, although it does not draw from the many, many books he wrote in that era (there are 22), liner notes. There was still a lot to draw from, things I had not read or pieces I had forgotten. But it’s the kind of book that made me realize very quickly I needed to be reading it with a pencil and Post-It flags in hand. There is plenty in this book I had not previously read, so you probably haven’t read it either. Luckily, this is a situation that you can change!

What a lot of people think about music writing is drawn from watching Almost Famous, specifically when Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Marsh’s CREEM colleague Lester Bangs, tells William Miller to “be honest and unmerciful.” And in these pieces, Marsh is honest -- he is always honest -- but while he is direct and unadorned, if there’s something that he absolutely was, it was merciful. Marsh had empathy, and he demonstrated it, often. The best example of that -- or at least the one I appreciated the most -- is a RRC piece about Kurt Cobain’s death, “Suicide Notes,” written a few months after it occurred. “If we can’t figure out what Cobain’s suicide says about him,” Marsh says at the beginning of the essay, “we should at least try to grasp what it says about us.” He’s angry at the loss and at the music business and he tries to work out why -- for Kurt’s memory, for himself, for “us,” where “us” is the wider conversation that used to go on about music among people who cared about it fiercely.

A thing you had to be careful of around Dave is in how you spoke about folklorist Alan Lomax -- namely, don’t ever refer to a recording as an Alan Lomax recording, but rather make sure you name the artist who was recorded. There’s more to this, and you should read his words, and not my paraphrase. I’m glad that a representative essay of his thoughts on this subject appears in an essay titled “Starfolking.” It’s definitive, in that it’s absolutely clear how Marsh feels about the subject at hand, and it’s critical, in that he feels that many people are missing the forest for the trees. But it’s also part of a larger conversation (see above) and I find it notable that right now we are once again having the discussion about how Americans don’t make music for themselves any more and what that means for the culture.

There’s a 1984 essay in here titled “Dance With The Devil,” an appropriate title for a piece that talks about Ronald Reagan and the time he decided to hijack Bruce Springsteen in a campaign speech. Marsh does the work to remind us how it happened in the first place. In the process he shouts out Elvis Costello for singing his anti-Reagan song, “Peace In Our Time,” on the Tonight Show, with an amended lyric that made sure that people knew what he was talking about. In “Freight Train Blues,” the essay that follows, dated the fall of 1985, he takes Neil Young to task for his support of Reagan, ending with, “He may be good, but that doesn’t mean he’s not my enemy.”

None of this would happen today, for so many reasons, none of which are good ones. I am reminded by the former reader of this newsletter who put money in the tip jar just so he could tell me that my statement that Beyonce fans would not be welcomed as warmly as Taylor Swift fans if they decided to gather outside stadiums while she was performing “detracted from the quality of your writing.” That’s funny, I thought exactly the opposite. Dave Marsh taught me not just to see how America, and life, is entwined with rock and roll, but to look for it and call it out when I saw it.

Marsh also listened to so much music, and promoted anything he liked that he thought was good. He does that in the essays in this book, and I appreciate that the editors retained the information on where one could acquire the music that’s been written about, whether it’s a P.O. box for a hammer dulcimer player or where you can buy the CD’s put out by a regional artist. He listened critically -- if he didn’t like it you’d know -- but he also listened with what I felt was a great openness. I might not care, at all, about the music he’d written about in an essay, but what always made me feel abashed was his enthusiasm and curiosity. It’s easy to get lazy or dogmatic when you are getting records sent to you every day. It’s a lot harder to genuinely engage, which is a reminder I got from reading the essays in this book. “A great new sound reaches us, always, as a miraculous gift,” is how he opens an Addicted to Noise (RIP) piece from 1998 about listening to Albert Ayler.

And he’s right, all of this music, all of everything we get to experience, is a gift, and we shouldn’t take it for granted. That doesn’t mean that we don’t question it, interrogate it, or have high expectations of it. In fact, because it is so precious, if we care about music as much as we say we do, we should be doing all of those things, all of the time. Dave Marsh didn’t know any other way to work, and I remain beholden and grateful to him for all of that.