Monday, September 08, 2008

6 Easy Pieces: The Press

The Beatles, A Day In the Life.
Ferde Grofé, Four Pictures of a Modern Newspaper: Run of the News.
Pete Seeger (with the Almanacs), Newspaper Man.
The Kinks, Mr. Reporter.
The Marx Brothers, Harpo Marx, Ace Reporter.
Wire, Reuters.
Joe Jackson, Sunday Papers.
The Jam, News of the World.
Public Enemy, A Letter to the New York Post.
Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, Cover of the Rolling Stone.
Belle and Sebastian, Chickfactor.
Don Henley, Dirty Laundry.
Hot Chocolate, Green Shirt.
Elvis Costello, Pills and Soap.
Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd, Jon Stewart on Crossfire.
Hüsker Dü, Turn On the News.

It was cold and damp in the city room the next day, and Miss Lonelyhearts sat at his desk with his hands in his pockets and his legs pressed together. A desert, he was thinking, not of sand but of rust and body dirt, surrounded by a back-yard fence on which are posters describing the events of the day. Mother slays five with ax, slays seven, slays nine...Babe slams two, slams three...Inside the fence Desperate, Broken-hearted, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband and the rest were gravely forming the letters MISS LONELYHEARTS out of white-washed clam shells, as if decorating the lawn of a rural depot...

Miss Lonelyhearts made believe that he was busy. He went over to his typewriter and started pounding out his column. "Life, for most of us, seems a terrible struggle of pain and heartbreak, without hope or joy. Oh, my dear readers, it only seems so. Every man, no matter how poor or humble, can teach himself to use his senses..."

Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts.


No one likes the press. Surveys show that Americans rate the media lower than they do used car salesmen, designated hitters, drunk drivers, immigrants or their next-door neighbors. Newspapers are biased, withering rags; radio is blaring stupidity; TV is a dead zone; the Internet is a den of rumormongers.

Musicians hate the press as well. It was hard to find a single song, over the course of a century, that is remotely positive about the profession of journalist. There have been songs sympathetic to drug dealers, abusive parents, boxers, murderers, politicians, preachers, even lawyers. But few, so few, for the press, the most reviled figures of our days.

It's easy to see why, especially those musicians who came of age in the era of Rolling Stone and MTV and US Weekly. Journalists are the people trying to snap their pictures at all hours and who spill the beans about a pop star having an affair or being gay, or they are the people hanging about backstage trying to be your friend and then giving your record a 3.6 rating. This leads to things like Billy Joel tearing up his bad newspaper reviews on stage, or Lou Reed bitching about Robert Christgau while recording a live album.


Maybe it's also that songwriters and musicians see the media as their aesthetic enemies, so that pop songs are the eternal rivals of the daily news--songs are transient things that occasionally become immortal, while the news is nothing but ephemeral until one day someone turns it into history.

John Lennon, reading the Daily Mail over breakfast one morning (more likely one afternoon) in January 1967, noticed two articles: a celebrity gossip item about the car-crash death of Tara Browne, the Guinness heir, and a dry inside-page single-column piece about the number of potholes in UK roads. Lennon, his mind saturated with LSD at the time, regarded the news as an utter absurdity--the salacious desire to revel in the lives and deaths of the famous and beautiful, juxtaposed with the ceaseless need to use polls and statistics to turn life into science. The cold madness of someone in a government research center calculating that the number of holes in Blackburn, Lancashire roads came out to one twenty-sixth of a hole per person was bad enough. To write an article about this finding was somehow even worse. Soon afterward, maybe that very afternoon, Lennon began to write his song.

"A Day In the Life" is about many things--transcendence, escape, drugs, the Beatles imagining the middle-class lives they would never lead--but deep in its heart is the news: our odd morning ritual, reading the paper over coffee and cereal, eating and yawning while skimming over the horrible deaths of thousands of people in a flood in order to read For Better or Worse or look at the winning lottery numbers.

(This version is an early mono mix, with McCartney's bass boosted a bit higher--the original is, of course, on Sgt. Pepper.)


There are perhaps two times in living memory when journalism held a bright place in the public imagination. One was after the Watergate scandal, when some considered journalists crusaders and patriots (others, traitors). And the other was the '30s and '40s, when journalism even had a touch of a romance and flair. It was a time when every mid-sized city had six or seven competing papers; it was the era of His Girl Friday, of copy boys and the city desk, of Walter Winchell, of Clark Kent and the Daily Planet.

Ferde Grofé (who had arranged some of Paul Whiteman's best jazz recordings) in 1932 wrote Tabloid Suite, a four-movement musical suite celebrating newspapers, a feat never before or again attempted. Taking cues from Erik Satie's Parade, Tabloid Suite is riddled with sound effects--the opening movement, "Run of the News," begins with the rapid-fire burst of a typewriter clacking. Performed by the Metropole Orchestra here.


Gay Talese checks the headlines

Some varied thoughts on reporters: Harpo Marx tries his hand at entertainment journalism (on EMI Comedy), while Dave Davies sneers at a journalist trying to dig something fresh out of him (recorded for a never-released solo LP in 1969, now a bonus track on Face to Face). (The pop star ridiculing the square reporter who's trying to frame him is a common trope of '60s pop, with Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" and the Beatles "And Your Bird Can Sing" among many examples.)

Pete Seeger's "Newspaper Man," from 1941, is a mordant look at the typical reporter's day. An older newspaper man once told me that in his youth he worked on the city desk and would be hammered by his editor for something juicy every day: "Gimme a good murder. Gimme a wreck. Gimme a good fire." Things haven't changed that much since. (The Almanacs were a loose confederation of folkies, including Seeger (whose banjo playing dominates the song), Lee Hays, Millard Lampell and sometimes Woody Guthrie--on Which Side Are You On?)

In Wire's "Reuters," a reporter wires back to his home office from out in the field: "This is your correspondent/running out of tape/gunfire's increasing/looting...burning..rape" (from 1977's Pink Flag).

In the summer of 1991, at a small daily newspaper in Connecticut, I started out on obituaries. On my first day I decided to edit an obit that I thought was too long, cutting out the deceased's membership in the Kiwanis Club and that he traveled to Costa Rica for his church. I was brilliant and 19 years old--I was going to refine the man's life down to its essentials. Well, the next day, after I was nearly fired, I had to run the uncut obituary and write an apology to the man's family.

Here I met my first actual reporter. Richard seemed ancient, though he likely was only 50 or so, had a rumbling voice and stunk of cigarette smoke. He often came in late, sat at his desk with his feet up, read the papers and made a few calls. Those familiar with the show The Wire--imagine Lester Freamon, if he looked a bit like Robert E. Lee.

One evening, driving on the outskirts of town, Richard noticed a large number of people coming out of a dilapidated house. He walked up to them, talked to them, had dinner with them. Turns out they were Mexicans, here illegally, living five to a room, paying an exorbitant rent--they were essentially the imported slaves of a nearby mushroom farm, which, as it happens, was not paying taxes on them, or paying them minimum wage and, as it turns out, was also their landlord, so that the workers actually wound up owing the farm money every month. Richard came back, wrote the story up. The morning that the article ran, Richard came in, smiled and began to sing:

What keeps a man alive?
He lives on others
He likes to taste them first then eat them whole if he can.
Forgets that they're supposed to be his brothers
That he himself
Was ever called a man...

We got a few threatening, anonymous letters. One said: "The farm story is going to be the end of you. You're going to regret this." Well, the newspaper's still around, 17 years later. The farm was shut down a few weeks after the article ran.


The people must have something good to read...on a Sunday!

The Clash, "The Leader."

What was once quaintly referred to as yellow journalism has been an easy target for songwriters, particularly British ones, as the UK's collection of lurid scandal sheets is unrivaled anywhere on the globe. Joe Jackson's "Sunday Papers" from 1979 (on Look Sharp!) offers a slogan for all tabloids--"If you want to know about the stains on the mattress." Hundreds of thousands apparently do.

Or the Jam's "News of the World," a 1978 single collected on Snap!.

"A Letter to the New York Post" is Public Enemy's response to their longtime nemesis, NYC's favorite tabloid, which had delighted in writing stories about everything from Flavor Flav beating his girlfriend to the anti-Semitic rants from former bandmember Professor Griff. On Apocalypse 91.


The relationship between musicians and the music press is less openly antagonistic, though there's still quite a lot of scorn, revulsion, mistrust and cynicism from both parties. Most rock musicians, particularly indie rock musicians, couldn't exist without music magazines putting their pictures on newsstands and trying to convince readers that their latest record is worth buying. Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show's "Cover of the Rolling Stone," from 1973, marks the moment Rolling Stone moved from being a counterculture chronicle to a celebrity arbiter. On Greatest Hits.

And Belle and Sebastian's "Chickfactor" depicts the modern pop-star interview as a combination of flirting, hipster oneupmanship and softball questions. (On The Boy With the Arab Strap).


In songs, as well as in daily life, the most venom seems reserved for the television news, the boll weevils of our once-noble public discourse, the purveyors of noise and glare and flash. Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry," from 1982, distills every criticism of TV news imaginable--it still seems current today, and you can dance to it, too. On I Can't Stand Still.

Elvis Costello's songs about TV news offer newscasters as the advance guard to fascism or worse. Costello's "Green Shirt" (covered here by Hot Chocolate) opens with the singer in love with, yet also dreading, the sight of a female newscaster, who cheerfully reduces the news to pabulum while flirting with the viewers. The green shirt in question could be the anchor's blouse or an army uniform, or perhaps she's already wearing the latter. "Pills and Soap" is, if anything, even more bleak--TV reporters as ghouls, hounding some poor family, or as con artists pushing photos of Charles and Di while the city burns behind them ("The king is in the counting house/Some folk have all the luck/and all we get is pictures/of Lord and Lady Muck") (on Punch the Clock).

You tease, you flirt: the newscaster as dirty old man

It's gotten to the point, as many have noted, that the only respected TV journalist today is a professional comedian and satirist.

"Jon Stewart on Crossfire" refers to Stewart's appearance on CNN's Crossfire in October 2004 in which, in addition to mocking Tucker Carlson's bowtie, Stewart questioned cable news' love of Punch-and-Judy shows in which alleged liberals and conservatives yell at each other and wondered why a comedy network should be held to higher standards than CNN. It was a death blow--soon afterward, Crossfire was canceled. "I guess I come down more firmly in the Jon Stewart camp," CNN CEO Jonathan Klein said at the time. The pianist Vijay Iyer and poet/rapper Mike Ladd's take is on Still Life With Commentator.


Rupert Murdoch did buy one of the best-known newspapers in the United States [the Wall Street Journal] and now wants another -- the New York Times.

"It's obviously irresistible to him. I've watched him go through the numbers, plot out a merger with the Journal's backroom operations, and fantasize about the staff's quitting en masse as soon as he entered the sacred temple," Wolff wrote.

Wolff added that before the Democratic primary in New York, he asked Murdoch whom Wolff should vote for and Murdoch's answer was: "Obama -- he'll sell more papers."

"Murdoch Longs to Buy New York Times--Report," Reuters, 3 September 2008.

Well, it's likely only going to get worse, and the papers will let you know about it. Husker Du's "Turn On the News" is on Zen Arcade.


Coming this fall: autumnal songs, natch. & the start of a new epic series--in fact, the most ambitious thing ever attempted here--which I'm sure everyone will just love to bits.

While you're waiting, don't miss this amazing Clarence White retrospective; Ted looks at "Stormy Weather" and early Bird; Setting the Woods on Fire has the originals of Yo La Tengo's "Fakebook" and more.

1 comment:

The Disappeared said...

Nice work; and good references to the Jam, the Clash, the Beatles *and* Wire. Appreciated!