Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Rock Explosion of the 90's
by Jim DeRogatis
To Jim—Now It's Your Turn. Best, Lester
This brief inscription, scrawled across the inside cover of his quickie bio of Blondie, were Lester Bangs's parting words to fledgling rock critic Jim DeRogatis. It was mid-April 1982, and the future Sun-Times staffer, then a senior at a Catholic high school in Jersey City, had just finished interviewing Bangs for a journalism class assignment. Two weeks later, while transcribing a tape of the chat, DeRogatis heard on the radio that the 33-year-old Bangs had died.
The experience would set DeRogatis on the path to become Bangs's Boswell. Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic finally saw light in 2000, positing the dead critic as rock writing's Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, and Hunter S. Thompson rolled into one and kicking off a lively reappraisal of his work. Cameron Crowe, another former disciple, paid homage to Bangs the same year in his love letter to adolescent rock fandom, Almost Famous, but DeRogatis took Bangs's edict closer to heart. At the Sun-Times, the Minnesota-based Request, and Rolling Stone and as a freelancer (working for the Reader, among other publications) he's demonstrated an uncanny ability to infuriate readers and subjects alike. Now with his third book about to hit the shelves and Sound Opinions, his radio show with the Trib's Greg Kot, expanding to TV, he's a veritable cottage industry of rock criticism.
Though DeRogatis has achieved far greater temporal success than Bangs, the specter of his idol still looms large. DeRogatis's new book, Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90's, is being released in the long shadow of Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, the second and much-discussed Bangs reader. (An expanded reissue of DeRogatis's 1996 debut, Kaleidoscope Eyes, also comes out this month as Turn on Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock.)
But while Bangs's early demise meant that others would ultimately shape his literary legacy, DeRogatis has the luxury of shaping his own. Milk It! is loosely organized as a primer on the rise and fall of alt-rock, but it's also DeRogatis's first attempt to compile his work in a manner befitting a critic who's made his mark. It's a greatest hits set—part anthology, part autobiography—similar in form to Richard Meltzer's A Whore Just Like the Rest and Nick Tosches's Reader.
DeRogatis cites both those collections as favorites, but his own work isn't as outre as Meltzer's belles lettres or Tosches's Old Testament tone poems. In some ways, he's chosen a convenient role model in Bangs: Like his own idol Kerouac, Bangs was remarkable not so much for his wordsmithery as for the synergy his writing achieved, the heat that baked out between the lines. But DeRogatis, who at the Sun-Times typically gets a few hundred words to reach the broadest audience possible, doesn't often approach the drug-fueled intensity Bangs built up in his rants. Few of the best pieces in Milk It! come from the daily—they're from magazines, alternative weeklies, and websites, where he has room to stretch out a bit—and even when he's got leeway, he's more bulldog than butterfly. His strongest stuf—examining the economic verities of Lollapalooza, challenging the misguided revolutionary politics of Rage Against the Machine, or probing the ethically questionable relationship between New York Times critic Neil Strauss and rock ghoul Marilyn Manson—is bolstered by his reporting skills. Before turning pro as a music critic, he worked for five years as a reporter and city columnist at the daily Jersey Journal. Risking the wrath of Steve Albini (who hasn't spoken to DeRogatis since the two squabbled over Urge Overkill in 1993) must seem like child's play after you've covered the real Mafia.
Milk It! opens, almost dutifully, with a fat section on Nirvana. The late-'93 Request piece that kicks things off—a preview of the band's final studio album, In Utero—is notable for a lengthy detour into Cobain's growing interest in guns. For two pages DeRogatis proceeds to challenge the singer about his uncharacteristic new obsession—a line of inquiry met with consternation by the band's publicist and eventually "a vacant, detached look" from Cobain.
This section and the two that follow—on Hole and Pearl Jam—showcase many of DeRogatis's strengths, but they also point to the pitfalls inherent in his hype-busting persona. DeRogatis strives to portray himself as a writer with a big critical stick and a well-tuned bullshit detector, so it's hard to fathom why the one artist whose sales job he buys over and over is the fabulously transparent Courtney Love. Admittedly, the widow Cobain does provide many of the book's highlights, including the juicy quote-athon "Courtney Unplugged" and "The Nirvana Wars," originally published in Spin and still the best dissertation on the messy legal battle over Cobain's musical estate.
In the foreword to Milk It! Keith Moerer, DeRogatis's former boss at both Request and Rolling Stone, pegs Love as someone who will "probably always be interesting, but never particularly admirable." DeRogatis, however, declares her "one of the great self-invented characters in rock history right up there with Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop" before going on to praise "her razor-sharp wit and lightning-quick intellect." He never calls her out on her noisy but disingenuous campaign against the major label system (she eventually signed a three-album deal with Virgin) and doesn't hold her to the same artistic standards he does, say, Patti Smith. It's OK with him that "Courtney's biggest talent is probably just being Courtney." Love loves DeRogatis back, in her way: "Even though Dero can be a dick, he's only exercising his right to free speech, and ultimately he's got balls and takes on the man—a lot," she writes in a blurb on the back of the book.
Milk It! doesn't work as a comprehensive history of music in the 90s—the focus is too narrow, and recaps of the careers of Wire, John Cale, and Kraftwerk bog the narrative down. By DeRogatis's own admission, he views the era largely through the prism of the hometown scene, devoting big chunks of the book to Smashing Pumpkins ("Melancholy and the Pear-Shaped Boy") and Steve Albini and Urge Overkill ("Positive Bleeding") and a decent amount of space to the likes of Red Red Meat, the Jesus Lizard, and Tortoise (all marshaled under the subheading "Freaks and Geeks"). For Request he constructed a month-by-month chronicle on the rise of Veruca Salt ("The Building of a Buzz Band"), and on behalf of the Bay Area mag BAM he took a journey into the avaricious mind-set of Liz Phair ("Sex in Rock 101: Selling the Maiden Phair"). For all the ink spilled trying to explain Phair's recent Matrix-produced sellout, you needn't read further than DeRogatis's 1995 piece on the canny Oberlin grad, where—despite a healthy respect for her music—he exposes the extent of her Faustian ambitions.
As Greil Marcus observed in his intro to the first Bangs anthology, 1987's Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the late critic wrote most powerfully about artists he was conflicted over or disappointed by. That's true of DeRogatis too, but while Bangs could count on Richard Hell for a spirited debate on the nature of life and death, be confounded by a genuine oddball like Captain Beefheart or challenged by a group as vital and contradictory as the Clash, DeRogatis deals with comparatively minor talents whose typical riposte to his criticisms is to call him a "fat fuck." Bangs got to face off with world-class churls like Lou Reed; DeRogatis's marquee dustup pits him against comically lightweight Third Eye Blind singer Stephan Jenkins, whose music he finds "incredibly boring and ordinary and average." While Bangs lived and worked in a world peopled by rock 'n' roll animals, DeRogatis is stuck at a PR mixer full of music-biz pets. But he makes the best of it by using them to get at larger issues in the industry.
Writing about his onetime favorites R.E.M. over the course of three cover stories for Request, for instance, DeRogatis slowly peels away the facade of the "little old band from Athens." By 1996, in "Automatic for the Press," he's revealed Messrs. Buck, Mills, Berry, and Stipe as cash-hungry control freaks who're out of ideas. "After eighteen years as a band, what is motivating the members of R.E.M. to continue?" he asks. "And, perhaps more important, has their incredible success boxed them into a corner where it's impossible to challenge themselves artistically?"
DeRogatis returns again and again to the themes of thwarted promise, profitable compromise, and creative collapse, making them central to the history of alt-rock's boom and bust. Interestingly, Lester Bangs's own ruminations on the death of the 60s dream could double as a eulogy for the dashed hopes of the 90s—and what was the Lollapalooza Nation if not a labored attempt to recapture the communal spirit of the Woodstock generation? Substitute "R.E.M" for "Rolling Stones" in Bangs's essay "1973 Nervous Breakdown: The Ol' Fey Outlaws Ain't What They Used to Be—Are You?" (anthologized in Mainlines):
"There's no point in blaming them," Bangs wrote. "They're helpless. In the past ten years the Rolling Stones created an enormous situation in which they're just a factor now. They're ironic victims of the endless new world which it was their triumph to create, because their efforts helped make it possible for hordes of other hopefuls to move into a relatively vacant atmosphere of electricity, expectation, and money. Flooding the market. Which is where both we and the Stones stand right now; up to our asses in brackish water."
There's nothing this eloquent—or melodramatic—in all of Milk It! DeRogatis is not contemporary rock criticism's great gonzo journalist, gutter poet, or romantic visionary—that is to say, not its Lester Bangs. But he's enthusiastically assumed the role of its most dedicated journeyman and unapologetic gadfly. And when the problem with music is that one has to settle for Stephan Jenkins instead of Lou Reed, that might be a worthy enough charge.
Jim DeRogatis celebrates the publication of Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90's and the forthcoming Turn on Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock on Friday, October 17, at the Hideout. A cover band featuring DeRogatis on drums will play hits of the alt-rock era and "the greatest psychedelic rock songs ever." The $5 suggested donation goes to P.L.A.Y., a music and arts program for abused and neglected teens.