As a Tribune music critic for the last 30 years, I’ve attended more than 2,000 concerts where pretty much anything could happen, and often has.
While scrawling in my notepad, I’ve been hit by a sod missile thrown by a Guns 'N Roses fan, punched in the eye by a guy jostling for a better view of Alice in Chains, hit by a gin bottle when the Offspring incited fans to throw garbage at the stage, been caught in no-man’s land when rival gangs started taunting each other at a hip-hop concert, and had three vertebrae damaged by a 250-pound drunk ramming into a crowd at an outdoor festival.
My job also had a downside.
Dealing with the machinations of the music industry was in many ways counter to the critic’s job of deciphering the language of music in recordings and in concert. Yet it was unavoidable, and was always an essential part of my beat.
U2 singer Bono (R) was one of the many performers who spilled to Greg Kot over a long tenure as Chicago Tribune music critic. (PUNIT PARANJPE/Getty)
I grew to respect many people who worked in the “industry” I covered, but as a journalist I never thought of myself as a part of that industry. Too often the bureaucracy impeded the music: the onerous contracts that denied countless artists their fair share of royalties (or sometimes no royalties at all), the pay-to-play business model of commercial radio conglomerates, the dominance of the concert industry by a handful of corporations (and eventually one corporation: Live Nation) that spiked ticket prices and service fees, the narrow pipeline clogged with middle men who reduced the flow of music between artists and fans to a trickle. My job often required me to be a business reporter as much as an arts critic, because the business often shaped and sometimes distorted the music that we were being sold.
When a digital-music underground began to emerge in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, most prominently with rogue platforms such as Napster, the hope was that the playing field would be leveled, that artists would be able to go direct-to-fan in delivering their music, and improve their odds of getting heard and possibly even getting paid. It certainly terrified the music industry, which met the new digital era with its usual blunt-force incomprehension and sought at first to ignore this new threat to its monopoly and then to sue it into oblivion. I once received a call in the late ‘90s from a major-label executive who had been reading my reporting on the new digital reality. “What’s an MP3?” he asked. “And how do you find one?”
Their demise seemed inevitable. But has anything really changed? In the place of the major-label hegemony a new corporate hierarchy – Spotify, Amazon, Google – has emerged that has reduced the value of recorded music to micro-pennies per play. Artists, as always, remain the last to get paid, and now they’re getting a smaller-than-ever slice of the revenue pie for their life’s work.
Yet the music itself somehow remains vital. Artists are making more music available to more people than ever in human history. Critics’ relevance has always been dicey, depending on whom you ask. But from this biased perspective, a smart, endlessly curious critic can continue to play a vital role in the digital world by fishing out the good stuff in an ever-expanding ocean of creativity.
Janelle Monae, one of Greg Kot's top performers, here during a 2018 show at the Chicago Theatre. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
I always viewed my writing as a conversation-starter about music that matters, or should matter. And my run at the Tribune might be over, but the conversation will continue. Here are a few parting memories:
The start: In my pre-critic days at the Trib, Eleventh Dream Day was a regular at the now-defunct Batteries Not Included, and because of that band, so was I. After one show I introduced myself to the quartet and asked if I could write about them for the Tribune, and I nailed one of my first bylines. Eleventh Dream Day continues to make inspiring music to this day.
Ice-breakers for potentially daunting interviews with a few late-greats:Address James Brown as “Mr. Brown”; have Lou Reed try to fix your malfunctioning tape recorder; ask John Lee Hooker about baseball.
Underappreciated: Paul K and the Weathermen, Green, Green Velvet, Local H, Shrimp Boat, All Natural, the Molemen.
Interview question that evoked the most uncomfortable responses (as posed to Paul McCartney, David Crosby, Mick Jagger, Bono, the Eagles’ Glenn Frey and countless others): Some variation of “You’re charging hundreds of dollars per ticket on this tour, which a lot of your fans can’t afford. Is that something that concerns you?” The answer from most, condensed and paraphrased, after much equivocating: “Not really.”
Paul McCartney, one of the artists made uncomfortable under questioning by Greg Kot. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
Best interviews: Public Enemy’s Chuck D; the late, great Chicago house “godfather” Frankie Knuckles; Prince; Iggy Pop; Eddie Vedder; Sinead O’Connor; Patti Smith; Kurt Cobain; Tom Petty; Lupe Fiasco; John Prine; David Bowie; Mavis Staples; Keith Richards.
Most memorable interview location: After he’d been banished from his major-label deal for his no-punches-pulled protest rap circa 1994, Ice-T invited me to his home in the Hollywood Hills, above the crime-ridden streets of South Central Los Angeles, where he grew up. “I thought I left there,” he said, “but now I realize I never really can.”
Best interview anecdote: John Lee Hooker once told me that Van Morrison used to call him late at night asking for dating advice.
Most ominous start to an interview: “There’s a dark cloud over us, Greg.” – Bono in 2005.
Funniest message from the office while I was out of town: “There’s a man named ‘Bongo’ that keeps calling for you. He seems upset about something.”
Shortest interview: Johnny Lydon hung up after 30 seconds and two questions, both involving a nostalgia tour his band Public Image Ltd. was doing with former Clash guitarist Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite.
Most memorable show: First place tie between Neil Young and Crazy Horse playing through a storm and an electrical outage at the H.O.R.D.E. festival in 1997, Jeff Buckley solo at Uncommon Ground with two dozen people in attendance on a snowed-in night in 1994.
Best then-unknown opening act: The Strokes opening for Guided By Voices at the Empty Bottle in 2001, before their debut album was released.
Best live performers: Iggy Pop, Prince, Janelle Monae, the Mekons, P.J. Harvey, Nick Cave, Mary J. Blige. Then there’s David Yow, who deserves a category all to himself.
Most insane stage stunt: Yow once poured lighter fluid on his jeans and set himself afire in an early Jesus Lizard show at the Cubby Bear. He survived unscathed. He later explained: “You don’t get burned if your jeans are tight enough.”
"The Jesus Lizard Book" by The Jesus Lizard features images from the band's wild concerts. (Pat Graham photo)
My crankiest lead (from 1999, after covering a festival in Tinley Park):“Memo to the Offspring’s Dexter Holland: You are an idiot. Why? Let me count the ways. You urged 30,000 people to reach under their chairs and throw garbage at you. Gutsy move, since you exited the stage two minutes later. Meanwhile, cups, bottles, beer, tin containers, even garbage cans rained down for a quarter hour on concertgoers, including grade-school kids and people in wheelchairs, and delayed the concert considerably. While stage crews cleaned up after your little prank, you were nowhere to be found. … I’ve never witnessed any alleged rock star say anything more stupid from a concert stage, and that’s quite an accomplishment. Congratulations.”
Thanks: To the readers, even those who threw sod or punches, or merely wished me ill will for writing harshly about their favorite bands – I’ll even cherish those multiple “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” goodbyes I’ve gotten in the last few weeks. We’re bound in the understanding that music not only matters, it’s worth discussing, arguing about and even fighting for, preferably not with fists but with words.
Greg Kot has been the pop and rock music critic at the Chicago Tribune since 1990. He co-hosts the nationally syndicated public-radio show “Sound Opinions” and has authored several books, including the Mavis Staples biography “I'll Take You There"; “Ripped," about the digital music revolution; and "Wilco: Learning How to Die.”l
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