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