Michael Goldberg's The Flowers Lied

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By Andrew Hamlin.

From his early rock writing, to a spot as a Rolling Stone mainstay, to a pioneering Web editor/publisher, to rock as literature, Michael Goldberg, founded of the original Addicted To Noise in 1994, keeps moving and keeps his thumb pushed down deep on the blurt.

Goldberg was immersed in the punk scene in the mid-1970’s, interviewing Patti Smith and The Ramones and the Talking Heads for stories that ran in the Berkeley Barb and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The Clash nearly threw him out of a San Francisco recording studio, the Sex Pistols tried to break his tape recorder, and Frank Zappa said if Michael Goldberg was one of his fans he was in big trouble.

Prior to starting ATN, Goldberg was an associate editor and senior writer at Rolling Stone for 10 years. His writing has also appeared in Wired, Esquire, Vibe, Details, Downbeat, NME and numerous other publications.

Goldberg has recently published The Flowers Lied, the second of three books detailing the life, work, frustrations, and passions of his protagonist, Writerman. For more information, visit Goldberg’s blog at Days of The Crazy Wild .

Who were your earliest powerful influences, literary, musical, and otherwise?

It’s rare that something you read or hear has a direct, clear-cut influence. When I was in elementary school I read all the Sherlock Holmes books and Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn and Crime and Punishment and I, Robot and all the other Asimov books. A lot of sci-fi and other genre fiction. The Doc Savage series. The James Bond books. Is any of that in my own writing? Maybe. Crime and Punishment had a big influence. But I read hundreds of books while growing up. I was never not reading a book.

I loved spy TV shows like Secret Agent and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission Impossible. Perry Mason. Later, Citizen Kane and the Lady From Shanghai and Touch of Evil and The Third Man and of course the French New Wave. Jules and Jim. Pretty much every Hitchcock film, although Spellbound and North By Northwest and Vertigo and Rear Window are unbelievably great. The Manchurian Candidate. Dali, Picasso, Rothko, Hopper, Manet, Van Gogh, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Man Ray, Bruce Conner… It’s a list. It goes on and on and on. It all had an impact. I’m who I am partially due to all that and partially due to my own experiences, what I’ve been through during my life to date.

Here’s a direct influence on my novels. There was this young woman in a coffee house in Portland. Once a week I’d go in there and buy an Americano on my way to the four hour Dangerous Writers writing group I was in. She had a beautiful face. She also had tattoos. Some were on her face and her neck. Probably all over her body, though I only saw her neck and her face and her arms. Her tattoos were very crude, I remember them looking as if they’d been drawn on her with a sharp nail, although maybe I imagined them into being more crudely done than they actually are. I never had a conversation with her. We’d exchange a few words when I ordered coffee. But she had an influence on my trilogy.

How did you discover them–where, when, which books/records/etc.?

One thing leads to another. You go to the library. You stumble upon Crime and Punishment. You read it. Your mind is blown. Your mom buys you Treasure Island. You’re interviewing the punk band X and John Doe tells you about John Fante’s Ask the Dust and you get a copy and it blows your mind. Dylan mentions On the Road. You see the film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and decide to read the book and end up also reading other books by Jules Verne. For school you read Lord of the Flies.

A friend has a copy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, you read about Howl in the newspaper or maybe Dylan mentions it. You read Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces and fall in love with the Situationists. You read Patti Smith’s M Train and she mentions Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal. You see Jules and Jim and then start trying to see every Truffaut film you can. Same for Godard. And Welles.

I would listen to KMPX, which was the first underground radio station in the country. And I heard Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” before hardly anyone knew who Pink Floyd was. This was when Syd Barrettled the band At that time The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was only available as an import and I got it. John Mayall was interviewed on KMPX and they played a bunch of his music and I became a fan.

Rolling Stone ran a cover story on Captain Beefheart and I sought out his albums. I was in this record store a mile from my house and I saw the Mothers of Invention album Freak Out! and those guys looked so weird, I mean it had to be a great album and I bought it and it blew my mind. So then as new Mothers of Inventions albums were released, I bought them.

The guy who worked in the record store turned me on to the greatest Modern Jazz Quartet album, Third Stream Music. That was the beginning of my love of jazz. I managed to get on some recording company mailing lists in high school and one day Nick Drake’s Pink Moon showed up and I liked the cover. Can you imagine. You’ve never heard Nick Drake and have no idea who he is. You put on Pink Moon and your mind is totally blown. One thing leads to another. I’m curious. And I’m very open to new things. I assume I won’t like it the first time. I keep listening until it makes sense. You train yourself to be open.

What seeped into you as you experienced each for the first time?

A lot of the good stuff, you have to listen to it many times before you get to the heart of it. Same for the great films. The great paintings. The great books. The first time you usually just get the surface. What’s exciting is when a piece of music that at first was a total mystery opens up to you. There are also plenty of great songs that hook you the first time and then you just go deeper and deeper.

The 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me” hit me strong when I first heard it. I went out and bought the 45. Rocky’s voice and those words. It got me on a visceral level. Some years later – after I’d fucked up this relationship with a girl I thought at the time was the love of my life – I heard that song again and it was if she was singing it to me. That’s when I really got that song, and what it meant. That song captures the devastation you feel when it’s over and nothing can salvage it. After you go through that kind of heartbreak and then you hear Amy Winehouse’s “Fade To Black” – it’s on a whole other level.

Another song I heard as a teenager was Love’s “Message To Pretty.” It was the B-side of “Little Red Book.” I bought the single ‘cause of “Little Red Book,” but the B-side, which has the weirdest vocal, really hit home. There’s a line in that song, “I can make it if I just don’t see your face.” That was me after losing that girl. So often, it’s as much about what you bring to the song, as what the song brings to you.

How did you get started in writing about music?

I co-founded a rock music magazine called Hard Road when I was 16. The title came from a John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers album – the idea was that the musician’s life was difficult, you know, a hard road. I started it with a friend of mine. We thought it was going to be the new Rolling Stone. We were wrong.

What was the first record review you ever published, and what did you have to say?

I wrote the lead review in our first issue. It was a review of Dylan’s Self Portrait. In contrast to Greil Marcus, I liked that album a lot. At the time, from my perspective, Dylan could do no wrong. I loved that Dylan felt the freedom to kind of fuck off and record a whole bunch of songs that he dug – that album is mostly covers. His version of the Felice Bryant and Boudleaux Bryant composition “Take A Message To Mary” is fantastic, as is his own “Minstrel Boy.” 

Who was the first artist or band you ever interviewed?

Jerry Garcia. He was standing at the top of this driveway up on Mount Tamalpias in Mill Valley where this major Bay Area music mogul lived. The music mogul’s son was a friend of mine. I was walking toward the driveway with my partner in crime (the co-founder of the magazine) when I saw Garcia standing there. Of course I walked right up to him – I’ve always had a lot of hutzpah — and asked if he’d do an interview with us for our new magazine. He said yes and actually gave us the address for the house in Larkspur where he lived with Mountain Girl and Robert Hunter and told us when to come interview him.

A week later we showed up with my big reel-to-reel tape recorder and my Pentax camera. He had totally forgotten about it and was planning to head off to the Keystone Berkeley to jam. We waylaid him and taped an interview in his living room and I took photos, one of which became the cover photo. There is one thing he said during that interview that I have thought about over the years. You have to remember that this was probably May of 1970. The counter-culture was still alive in the Bay Area at that time. It was on the downhill slide but me and my friends certainly didn’t know that.

I asked Garcia if he thought music was a manifestation of the revolution – meaning the radical way that young people were now living at that time. He said of the revolution, “It’s already gone, it’s already past and the rest of it is like telling everyone who missed in that it’s already happened.” He said, “It’s already happened in principle and the waves of it are now moving away from ground zero.” The idea that something radical happens, and then it’s over but the reverberations from it continue to spread. He said, “Eventually the whole world will be a different place.” He was right, and he was wrong.

Which are the most amazing, most painful, and most unusual interviews you’ve ever conducted?

I interviewed Nicholas Ray, the director of “Rebel Without a Cause,” in 1979, and photographed him. That was amazing. Not long after that he died. He was a living legend to me. I’d studied his films in college. And to sit with him. Wow.

I walked out of an Iggy Pop interview. I was interviewing him on camera for some kind of music video show around 1980 or so. He was a total ass. He was using me for his shtick. Iggy the cool grandfather of punk treating the reporter like shit.

One of my first interviews was with Frank Zappa. He was a dark, bitter presence all wound up tight at the corner of this hotel couch smoking cigarettes and drinking black coffee. My wife and I were interviewing him. He wouldn’t let us record the conversation so we had to take really perfect notes since the interview was going to run as a Q&A. I told him I was one of his biggest fans. He told me that if that was true, he was in trouble.

I had a great time hanging out with Black Flag in around 1986. I drove with them in the back of their van from LA to Las Vegas where they had a gig in a space where porn films were shot. They were all really cool, nice people. Nothing like the media-created image. This was the version with Henry Rollins and Kira Roessler and Bill Stevenson and of course Greg Ginn. Kira was so cool. I always wondered if she’d partially inspired Carrie and Corin to start Sleater-Kinney.

I got into an argument with The Clash when they were recording Give ‘Em Enough Rope. The Sex Pistols tried to break my tape recorder. After Roy Orbison died I was gathering quotes from rock stars about Roy. The phone rang. My wife picked it up. The caller said, “This is George Harrison, can I speak to Michael Goldberg?” She about fell over.

I spent a day with James Brown. He was performing for the inmates at San Quentin prison. I went there with him. His mind was blown that 99% of the inmates were black or brown. That was an education for me too. He was so mad at seeing that.

What tips would you give writers for reviewing and interviewing? How have your perceptions of both grown and changed over the years?

Write a lot. Write every day. A review should have a theme. Figure out something about the album or the book or the film. If you spend some time really listening and also focus on the lyrics a theme will emerge that you can use that for your lead. It’s like any essay. You state your theme. You use the bulk of the review to make your case while talking about the songs that really move you, and then you restate your theme in a fresh way to end it.

Interviewing is all about getting the subject to feel comfortable and to open up and tell you some truth about themselves and their work. The more interviews you do, the better you get. Don’t be afraid to ask the stupid questions. What I mean is, just because you already known something about the artist doesn’t mean you don’t ask them about it. Let the artist talk. Inexperienced interviewers will talk a lot and then when they listen to the recording half the interview is them. Readers want to hear what the artist had to say, not the interviewer.

Rolling Stone: Some love it, some hate it, some think it’s only a fiefdom. How did you get started there, why did you leave, and how did your experience there compare and contrast with your experience on other publications?

From when Jann started it in 1967 until the mid ‘90s at least, if you wanted to write about music, Rolling Stone was it. Every musician wanted to be covered by Rolling Stone. If you were writing a profile, the trick was to get them to let you hang out for a few days at the minimum so you’d have a chance to see what they were really like. To get a good story you need to be able to hang with the subject for a long time, and then you need to talk to tons of people who have known them. I was good at getting access. I hung with Stevie Wonder for two days. Stevie goes for long stretches when he doesn’t sleep. So I was up with him for 36 hours.

I wanted to write for Rolling Stone really bad starting when I was in high school. That was my goal: get hired by Rolling Stone. For about nine years, every story I wrote, no matter who it was for, I was doing my best to write what I thought was a Rolling Stone story. I started sending in letters pitching stories and after a few years, one day I got a call. This editor named Jim Henke needed a story on Carlos Santana. I wrote it, it ran, I was thrilled.

Then a year or two went by and I got this great interview with Devo so I called up Jim Henke and pitched it. Turns out Rolling Stone had panned Devo’s first album so they wouldn’t talk to Rolling Stone. My timing was great. They bought my story and ran it. I loved Devo, by the way.

Then they wanted a story on Rick James and I had interviewed Rick for the San Francisco Chronicle and Rick liked the story so when I suggested Rick let me ride with him on his tour bus from San Francisco to Sacramento and I would interview him on the bus for Rolling Stone, he was up for it. I landed a Van Morrison interview and Rolling Stone was excited to get that story.

After about a year of selling stories to Rolling Stone they asked me to join the staff as a Senior Writer. For the first seven, maybe eight years it was a dream job. I wrote most of the Live Aid cover story including the lead, which was a scene at a private post-concert party attended by Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Neil Young, Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, Stephem Stills, Don Johnson from Miami Vice, some of Duran Duran, former Temptations Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin and Bob Dylan. I got quotes from Mick and Keith and Bob at the party. This young woman who also worked at Rolling Stone and I were the only reporters who got into that party. I’m still proud of that opening section.

I settled into a role at Rolling Stone as their primary music news writer and music business investigative reporter – before me they didn’t have someone really focused on covering the business. But I also did a lot of artist profiles. John Fogerty, Stevie Wonder, The Band’s Robbie Robertson, Brian Wilson, Boy George, Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, Michael Jackson, Chris Isaak, James Brown. And many others.

For about eight years I worked with the guy who hired me, the music editor, Jim Henke, who was an incredible editor. As a reporter, when you link up with the right editor, it’s magic.

I did a lot of freelance writing before Rolling Stone. You ended up spending half your time pitching stories to editors. At Rolling Stone I spent all my time reporting and writing. It was great.

After Rolling Stone I founded Addicted To Noise. I was the boss. That was the best. It felt so free not having to answer to anyone.

What gave you the idea to launch the original “Addicted To Noise”? How did that come about? How did ATN flourish? What brought it to an end?

In 1993, I think it was, I got on America Online. I spent quite a bit of time in the music area. Now this was when you could not combine images and text on the same page very easily. There was no sound. Very primitive. But it struck me that this online medium would be a great place for a music magazine.

So I spent quite a bit of time brainstorming what my ideal online music magazine would be like. And I assumed that soon it would be possible to have photos and sound and text and video on the same page. I spent about a year developing the idea and pitching it to some big companies ‘cause I didn’t have any money and I thought I needed money to get the thing off the ground. When that didn’t pan out I said to hell with it, and started it with $5000 in the bank.

By that time I’d seen early web sites which did let you combine images, text and audio on the same page. So I decided ATN would be an outlaw magazine on the then wild Internet. The logo was a crossed pair of syringes designed by the great poster artist, Frank Kozik, who has since found success as a painter and creator of fine art toys such as “Labbit.” A lot of people didn’t see the humor in the logo. I’m a big fan of black humor.

The first issue went live in December 1994. It got tons of press. Billboard, Rolling Stone, the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek… I flew to Sydney, Australia and interviewed R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe for the virtual cover of the second issue. R.E.M. were at the peak of their popularity, just beginning a world tour. After that I could get an interview with pretty much anyone.

I imagined Addicted To Noise as a cross between Creem and the early Rolling Stone with a lot of the focus on raw rock ‘n’ roll – The Stooges, the MC5, Patti Smith – but also new artists. We had great interviews with Neil Young, Cracker, Metallica, Phish, Wilco…

By 1997 ATN was world famous. It was the first web music magazine. It quickly evolved from a monthly magazine to a daily. The music news section went viral. It became a source of music news for radio stations, publications like the NME and Melody Maker in London and even MTV. All of today’s music sites and blogs are based on what I did at Addicted To Noise and SonicNet. No one was doing the kind of daily music news before Addicted To Noise. We were also the first to have music samples as part of album reviews and profiles. We debuted the first entire album by a major artist: Neil Young’s Broken Arrow.

I had Joey Ramone writing a column. He loved Addicted To Noise.

This music business guy had started a digital music company and in 1996 bought SonicNet, who were this east coast-based music site. I got to talking to Nicholas Butterworth, the president of SonicNet, and in early 1997 we struck a deal whereby Addicted To Noise merged with SonicNet. It was amazing for the next three years; it seemed like we had limitless funding. We just kept growing. At one point I had like 70 people reporting to me. Reporters, editors, a large production staff, audio and video engineers…

But then the music business guy struck a deal with MTV. Six months later the stock market crashed and it was over.

What gave you the idea for your trilogy of novels?

I think there is always a counter-culture. When I was a teenager it just so happened that the counter-culture – with ideas that started in the Haight-Asbury in San Francisco about alternative ways of living – really caught the attention of the media and the world. Things flourished in the Bay Area for a few years and then it started going south. But me and my friends didn’t really see that at the time.

I thought a book that really captured what it was like for a kid in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, as things were falling apart, needed to be written. No one else had written a novel that dealt with that time in the way I wanted to.

Every teenager and college kid who wants to really live, who wants to experience more than sitting on a couch watching the Tube or their iPhone, what my narrator calls “the authentic real,” can relate to some of what the narrator goes through in these books.

How did you go about creating Writerman’s voice?

Writerman (Michael Stein) is the main character and he is also the person narrating the story in a first person voice. He uses the slang of the day, but also some slang that I invented. He’s an exaggerated character – larger than life in some ways. He’s a Jewish kid who feels guilty about everything. You’re inside his head. He’s telling the story from 1975. So he’s remembering what happened, occasionally interrupting the action to reflect from his vantage point in 1975 on these incidents that happened in his past.

I spent eight years working on these books. The voice evolved as I worked on them. It took many, many revisions to get it the way I wanted it. Writing a novel is like going on a journey to an unknown planet. You’re creating this world. It may resemble the real world, but it’s not the real world. You have to show the reader what this world looks like.

Which writers influenced the writing of the whole trilogy?

Critics have written that Writerman is a kind of Holden Caulfield character, that I’m a 21st Century Kerouac, whatever that means, that it’s the novel Lester Bangs would have written if he’d written a novel. And so on. If you look closely at the writing it’s nothing like Salinger or Kerouac or Bangs. I’m honored that writers have compared what I’ve done to those writers, but I think my writing is its own thing. I don’t think it sounds like those other writers. I’d say Captain Beefheart and Howlin’ Wolf were major influences.

What were the biggest challenges of adapting to fiction writing from music writing? How did you surmount them?

I used this idea that someone in the Dangerous Writers writing group I was in said: “character is revealed in the destruction of the sentence.” The writing in these books is based on that idea. You fuck with every sentence so everything could only come out of the mouth of the narrator.

What got easier as writing the trilogy went along? What got harder?

The hardest thing is getting the first draft of the book on the page. It took a couple of years to get a complete first draft of all three books done. Maybe longer.

You’re inventing everything. You’ve got to be able to see the characters and the world they live in and listen to how they talk and then get all that on the page.

It’s a very strange process. You have to write every day. When you work on your novel every day, your subconscious starts working on it, and that’s when amazing things start to happen. Characters would show up and I couldn’t see them very clearly but as time went on they got crystal clear and I could see every detail and it became clear how they used language and how they made their way through the world. They would say things on their own. It wasn’t like I was figuring out what they said. I’d be in this zone, in the world I was writing about, as if I was watching a film and they’d talk.

As I worked different songs or groups of songs by a particular artist became the soundtrack for different parts of the books. In the first book there’s a chapter that takes place on a houseboat and the Stones “Sway” off Sticky Fingers was in the atmosphere during that whole chapter.

Once the first drafts were done, then it was much easier. It became all about refining sentences, cutting stuff that wasn’t really necessary, getting the voice right, making sure everything made sense. It’s not like any of it was easy, it’s more like getting a complete first draft written is impossibly difficult. So if you manage that, then by comparison, the rest is easy.

What’s your writing routine for the trilogy? Has it changed at all over the long run?

I spent six years writing and revising the books. There were three drafts of each book. I wrote every day. Often for eight hours. I wrote a lot of it while hanging out in cafes. While writing the first draft of everything, I did dozens of chapter revises. And actually, for the second and third drafts each chapter was revised many, many times. It was just that in creating the second draft I was focusing on more subtle things, and same for the third draft. It was incredibly exciting working on these books. It was gong off on an adventure to another planet.

Which music artists, writers, etc., have meant the most to you over the last thirty years, and why?

Bob Dylan taught me what freedom is – he appeared to be living life on his terms in the ‘60s and ’70. He had a most unconventional voice and yet there he was, 1965, singing “Like A Rolling Stone” on Top 40 radio across the country. He proved that you didn’t have to follow the rules – Bob Dylan changed everything when it came to rock music. He brought a brain to music that previously was mostly about libido. And he has had a profound impact on me.

Captain Beefheart taught me that art didn’t have to make literal sense – that there is meaning in sound. Beefheart was the true artist who makes no concessions to the market place. Lick My Decals Off, Baby and Trout Mask Replica and Safe as Milk and The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot are amazing. Of course eventually he did attempt to make some commercial albums. And there’s a lesson one can learn from that too. Ultimately, he told the music business to fuck itself and turned to making abstract art as fierce and beautiful as his music. I had the honor of interviewing and photographing him. A high point of my life as a music journalist.

There are so many musicians I’ve learned from, so many writers and directors and visual artists. Diane Arbus’ photographs help you to understand that the idea of “normal” is a con. The most seemingly normal situation is actually completely bizarre. We have this idea of the normal way to live that we’ve been fed via TV and school and often by our parents. And people think that what they see on TV or in the movies is real life. And it’s not. You see Arbus’ photo of the giant standing near a Christmas tree with his normal height parents and you understand that there is no normal, that every situation is unique.

Many folks called the Web the death of music writing. Do you agree or disagree, and why?

The great music writers never just write about music. For me, as a human being, I’m involved in an ongoing search to unravel the mysteries of life. Art helps us understand life. You know we really don’t have that much time. If we’re lucky we get 80 or 90 years. And for a lot of those years we don’t have a clue. We’re lucky if we wake up to what’s important. Time is short.

Are there writers who help me make sense of life? Of course. Print, the Web, it doesn’t matter. Most of what gets written is a waste of time. Will it matter a year from now – probably not. There’s a rush one gets from some writing that is kind of like a drug high. You can get addicted to that rush.

But what I look for is writing that gets to some kind of truth. If Patti Smith or Sleater-Kinney or Tom Waits or Lana Del Ray make a great recording, and a writer can add depth to my experience of that great recording, help me understand what it’s saying about life, well then that writing has meaning. For me. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s there were not that many publications that ran rock criticism. And there weren’t that many writers writing rock criticism. And most of them were damn good. These days there are so many writers and it’s impossible to keep up with it all. But no, the Web hasn’t killed good music writing. It’s around if you look for it.

What’s your advice for music writers, arts writers, fiction writers, and just plain writers, in the Twenty-First Century?

It’s pretty simple. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Maybe there are some people who are born good writers. For most of us, it’s something you have to work at.

To be a good writer you have to read a lot of good writing. And I’m not talking about reading music criticism. I’m talking about reading the great writers of all time, through the ages.

But don’t forget Meltzer. You for sure want to read Richard Meltzer.

 

 

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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