Friday, February 26, 2010


Back in the late 1970’s—those ancient days when people still used typewriters, listened to vinyl LPs and most of us didn’t have a VCR let alone a TiVo—I was making my living, such as it was, playing in rock bands and doing record reviews, concert reviews, and interviews for a variety of small papers across the country.  Music journalism was a dream gig:  I’d get mountains of free albums, fantastic seats at concerts (free again!) and they’d even pay me for it.  (Not much, mind you, maybe five bucks a review—but being paid anything for writing was a miracle in those days.)  Really, what more could a strongly opinionated music fanatic ask?  In 1979—by this time, my band had broken up and I was beginning to get work in the comic book business—I sent some of my reviews to Rolling Stone, the Holy Grail of rock criticism.  I was delighted when my samples were received enthusiastically; even more delighted when the magazine started offering me assignments.

I had a few RS pieces under my belt when they asked me to review a Grateful Dead album, Go To Heaven. (You can read the review right here—although, if memory serves, this is a slightly edited version.)  My then-wife was a diehard Dead fanatic, as were several of my close friends, but I was far less sympathetic.  It’s not that I disliked the band (I thought Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty were first-rate albums):  my problem was with the sub-culture that surrounded the Dead.  The Deadheads—as they called themselves—were so fanatical, so singularly obsessed, that they made hard-core comic book geeks seem sane and well-adjusted by comparison.  Looking back, I really don’t know what my problem was.  These people had an enthusiasm, a fiery passion, and it brought incredible joy into their lives.  Why was I so annoyed by them, so full of judgment?  Why in the world did I even care?  (Psychological insecurity and emotional immaturity are two answers that come to mind.) 

The Go To Heaven assignment gave me a chance to unload on the entire Deadhead community:  my review was smug, condescending and unkind.  (To be fair to my Younger Self, I generally tried to find something positive to say, even when writing about music I didn’t care for.  The Dead review ended on a constructive note, praising the contributions of keyboard player Brent Mydland. )  Of course, I had, on occasion, been just as smug and judgmental writing for other papers—I remember a review of a Kiss concert at Madison Square Garden that was fairly merciless—but this wasn’t Just Any Music Paper, this was Rolling Stone, a prestigious publication with hundreds of thousands of readers.  What appeared in print in RS had impact, rippling out across the collective pop culture consciousness.  It’s one thing to sit with a buddy, arguing heatedly over music or art or politics—but when that opinion’s in print, especially in a publication like Rolling Stone, the words take on other levels of meaning and readers take it very seriously.

I learned just how seriously when my editor sent me a stack of letters that the magazine received in response to my review.  No other piece I’d written had elicited so much as a mutter of praise or protest, but here was letter after letter from passionate, angry, offended and deeply wounded Deadheads:  they couldn’t have been more agitated if I’d slandered their mothers.  The emotional intensity of the responses shocked and disturbed me.  Idiotic as it sounds—because, well, it was idiotic—I’d never really considered the effect my words would have.  (Which is funny because, as a reader, I always take it personally when I read a review eviscerating some writer or actor, musician or director, that I love.)  Those letters stopped me in my tracks and, more important, forced me to reconsider what I was doing.
I was, as noted, already getting work in comics, beginning my path as a professional storyteller.  Reviewing was a side-path I’d stumbled onto—but my passion, my joy, was in the act of creation:   writing a song and then building an arrangement in collaboration with other musicians; taking a blank page and filling it with ideas and characters and fantastic worlds.  That, more than anything, was what I wanted to do with my life.  Reading the letters from those Deadheads helped me to realize just how much I didn’t want to be the guy sitting in judgment of other people’s work.  No, I wanted to be the guy sailing my creative dreams out into the universe for others to embrace or reject, love or loathe.  So, right then and there, I went cold turkey:  Go To Heaven was the last review I ever wrote.  It’s a decision I’ve never regretted. 

Over the years, I’ve been the object of more than a few negative reviews, some of them far more venomous and malicious than anything I ever wrote (karmic rebound, perhaps?); but I still love reading reviews, especially if the critic is intelligent, insightful and—perhaps the single most important quality—compassionate.  (My son, Cody, is a music journalist and he’s terrific at it:  much better than I ever was.)  I remain wildly opinionated and I still love the sparks that fly when those opinions are shared with others (Cody and I can spend hours discussing  movies, music, books, television shows:  we’re like an intergenerational Ebert & Roper); but I’m grateful—pun very much intended—to those heartfelt Dead fans for helping me to focus on what was truly important in my life.  For giving my boat that extra push into the creative waters that have been a source of joy and magic for the past thirty years.

© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Here's a link to an especially insightful review of The Life and Times of Savior 28, courtesy of one of the best comics-related websites out there, Graphic NYC.  While you're visiting, you might want to browse their amazing library of profiles of comics creators.  You'll find everyone from Joe Simon to Harvey Pekar, Neal Adams to Dean Haspiel.  It's a genuine treasure trove of comic book history.  Be prepared to spend some time at GNYC—because once you start reading those profiles, you won't want to stop.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Thought I'd share another Lost Post from the Amazon archives...

When I was a junior in high school, I had a grade advisor (who shall remain nameless):  a woman who loved to complain.  You'd trot down to her office, allegedly to discuss your future, and she'd start babbling:  "I don't know why I took this job. I have kids of my own.  I can't take this."   I’ll never forget one encounter when She Who Must Not Be Named asked me what I wanted to do when I got out of school.  I said I either wanted to go into art or writing. "Look at these English grades," she huffed, dismissive and contemptuous. "Forget being a writer. Go into art.

Inspiring, wasn’t she?   
I was never a great student—or even a particularly good one.  By the time I entered Midwood High School, I was sullen, cynical and psychologically damaged.  The guy whose favorite activity was to sit in the back of the class glowering at everyone else.  (I also had a raft of learning disabilities.  In those days most people had never heard of learning disabilities, so there was no one around to say, “Hey—I think I know why you’re struggling.”)  No surprise, then, that I wasn’t exactly the cream of the Midwood crop.  New York City had three types of high school diplomas back then.  There was an academic diploma for the kids heading on to college; a commercial diploma for the kids moving into the business world; and then came the absolute bottom of the barrel:  the general diploma—for the kids riding the express train to obscurity.  Or maybe jail.  Or maybe both.  Over the course of three years I fell, with a total lack of grace and a deafening thud, from academic to commercial to The Dreaded General.
Perhaps my supreme frustration, as I tumbled into the high school abyss, was that nobody really saw me. Not their limited perception of me, but my deepest, truest self:  call it the Authentic JMD.  (Our Great Educational Institutions aren’t fond of subtle distinctions, they’re all about generalized type-casting:  “You’re an A student, you’re a moron.  Now get back in line!”  Once you’ve been typed, there’s very little you can do to shatter the mold they’ve squeezed you into.)   For some magical, inexplicable reason (well, maybe not so inexplicable—but I’ll get to that later), I came into this life knowing who I was and what I wanted to do and nothing, absolutely nothing, was going to stop me from doing it.  But the Powers That Be at Midwood—embodied in She Who Must Not Be Named and many more like her—could have cared less.  Every day became a battle to hold on to that Authentic JMD; and, as time went on, I found myself losing the war.
Then an angel descended into my life:  my eleventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Kimmelman.  Perhaps because I was able to express the Authentic JMD through my in-class writing, Mrs. Kimmelman got a glimpse of the kid behind the sullen mask.  She nurtured and encouraged me.  Let me know that I wasn’t a drudge or a drone or an empty-headed dolt.  That I mattered.  And she made sure that, in my senior year, I was put into an honors English class.
It was in that senior honors class that I encountered another Guardian Angel, a teacher—Mr. Benowitz was his name—who became a true mentor to me, both creatively and spiritually.  He’d invite me to join him for lunch and I’d spill my guts, ranting and raving about life, the universe and everything for thirty or forty minutes a shot.  He, in turn, would nod and then drop a Pearl of Wisdom that would seep into my confused brain and, occasionally, set off a brilliant flare of awareness.
In Mr. Benowitz's class everyone was expected to keep a journal, which he would read and comment on.  Despite my initial reluctance, journaling was one of the single most liberating  things I ever did.  I’d lock myself away in my room and write and write and write and write.  Whatever I was thinking or feeling, I would scrawl down in a mad fever, raging—as only a hormonally-imbalanced seventeen year old male can—against society, the government, religion, my fellow humans and the God (if there even was one) who seemed intent on making my life utterly miserable.  I also wrote short stories.  Well, at that stage of the game I could never actually complete a story, so I would write these utterly bizarre, truncated pieces which usually ended up with somebody killing their parents or turning into a monster and exploding.  My journal was filled with page after page of wonderful, terrible, embarrassing, hate-filled, despair-ridden, illogically hopeful adolescent angst.  It helped me to grow as a writer—in the writing life, there’s nothing more important than being unafraid to expose your naked psyche on the page—and, even more, it helped me as a person.  My journal was my lifeline.  It kept me sane.  (The other things that kept me sane were books, comics and rock and roll.  Writing a song was even more liberating than journaling.  And, when it came to catharsis, nothing could beat being in a band and playing Neil Young’s “Down By The River” really, really loud.)
What these two teachers gave me, how their encouragement helped heal my wounded spirit, can’t be underestimated.  They truly were angels in my life (the truth is, She Who Must Not Be Named was an angel, as well:  her opposition to my dreams only fueled my passion to manifest them and that, too, was an incredible blessing).  The fact that I’m writing about them more than thirty-five years later speaks volumes about the extraordinary impact they had on my life.  But equally important—no, more important—was my ability to know myself.  To have faith in myself, in my creativity.  In my dreams most of all.  I've come to understand that this faith in ourselves is one of the greatest gifts we can receive—and that it comes directly from God (which means, of course, that I was never as alone as I often felt.  Something I began to understand by the end of senior year.  But that’s another story—covered, in depth, in my graphic novel, Brooklyn Dreams.)
It’s been my experience that our most passionate dreams—the ones that hold tight to us and never let go, no matter what terrifying hurdles we encounter—come not from us, but from the Divine.  It often seemed, in those days of struggle and opposition, that the whole world was conspiring against me.  With time and wisdom I came to see that there was a conspiracy:  a benevolent conspiracy that guided me, sometimes gently and sometimes with a firmer hand, over the hurdles and onto a path that was perfect for me.
I know there are people out there who feel the same way I once did (the way I still do on those days when my spirits lag and my faith depletes):  ignored and forgotten, crushed and frustrated.  If you’re one of them, I want you to remember that the universe is much bigger, and far more compassionate, than it sometimes seems.  And that self-knowledge and self-belief trump the Nay Sayers every time.  There really are angels out there, some of them shimmering—winged and golden—just beyond the periphery of our vision and some of them standing—flesh, blood and imperfect—right in front of us.  When they appear in your life, allow them to help you.  Surrender to the Benevolent Conspiracy.  And never relinquish your dreams.  The magnificent dreams that God is dreaming in us, through us and as us.

©copyright 2010  J.M. DeMatteis