Ira Robbins began publishing Trouser Press in 1974 for all the right reasons: love of music on the margins, Anglophilia, fun. That he and co-founders Dave Schulps and Karen Rose didn’t know what they were doing was all the more reason to do it. In the first volume of his recent “memoir,” Music in a Word, Robbins describes the ten years of Trouser Press’s existence (ending with a Happy Birthday salute to Joey Ramone) and some of the interviews and stories that never made print, such as how a bad review ended a friendship with Cheap Trick, Milton Berle was a mensch, and Steve Allen a dick. Richie Unterberger spoke with Robbins for PKM.
“Look at the first issue. It’s like this blurry, poorly mimeographed, poorly typed, illiterate piece of garbage, basically. Yet we were so proud of what we had done.”
That’s how Ira Robbins views the debut edition of the magazine he co-founded in the mid-1970s, Trouser Press. Originally calling it Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, he and his cohorts literally flogged the publication outside concert venues, lacking anything resembling a conventional distribution network. One of the hawkers “got arrested for peddling without a license. We had to bail him out. It was like a $25 fine. That almost ended the magazine right then and there.”
Yet ten years later, with Robbins staying the course as publisher and editorial director, Trouser Press had a circulation of 60,000, and was hailed by many as the finest US rock magazine. It was vital to popularizing both British and American punk and new wave, as well as detailing little-covered corners of UK rock history from the 1960s and early 1970s. Unexpectedly, its tenth anniversary issue in April 1984 turned out to be its last. Why quit when you’ve made it to the top, at least in the niche world of alternative rock journalism?
Robbins writes about the rise and sudden halt of Trouser Press in his new ebook Music in a Word: Vol. 1, but that takes up less than half the volume. He went on to a long, ongoing career in not just music journalism, but also other writing, including fiction. The book isn’t quite a memoir, or an anthology. It’s kind of a combination of forms, blending first-hand accounts of his career with plenty of his vintage reviews, stories, and interviews. Memorabilia such as letters and drawings from rock stars and others are sprinkled throughout the text.
Robbins has also written a novel about a ‘70s British glam rock star, Marc Bolan Killed in Crash, as well as a fiction book unrelated to music history. He spoke at length about the books, and his career, shortly after Music in a Word: Vol. 1 was released in spring 2021.
Trouser Press: The Beginning
Nearly 50 years have passed since Trouser Press began in 1974. The name was kept alive with Trouser Press new wave/alternative record guides Robbins edited in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the TrouserPress.com website, which features scans of every issue. Why write about it in the book form now, albeit just as a substantial part of a larger not-wholly-memoir?
“I’ve had people say to me over the years, ‘why don’t you do like a best-of Trouser Press book,’ or ‘why don’t you do a book about your career?,’” Ira explains. “I’ve never thought that it was really in and of itself that interesting to write about myself. But the thought of kind of interweaving it with the articles, and sort of giving more background in certain cases about the pieces that I’ve written—and [putting in] stuff that didn’t make it into the articles—I thought would kind of be interesting.”
Part of the reason readers feel such a personal connection to Trouser Press is that it was founded by passionate fans, not business people looking to exploit an underserved market. Robbins and his co-founders, Dave Schulps and Karen Rose, “had a view of what our magazine was about. It evolved, and in a sense, we never left too much of it behind. We started off doing kind of ‘60s British Invasion collectors stuff. Dave and I were Who fans, Karen was a Jeff Beck fanatic. So we sort of had Yardbirds, Who, Stones, the Kinks, those kinds of artists, in our heads. That’s what we wanted to write about.”
Nearly half a century later, it might seem like there’s nothing left to discover about those groups. However, it has to be remembered that back then, there was nowhere else you could read, for instance, a huge multi-part Yardbirds story (by Ben Richardson) detailing every one of their releases, down to import-only LPs, non-LP B-sides, and overlooked outtakes on budget albums. There are now several biographies on Nick Drake and Syd Barrett, but Trouser Press was running stories on such cult figures when they were barely known in the U.S.
“We all had kind of an underdog enthusiasm,” says Robbins. “It was just kind of the way we viewed culture. We always wanted to talk about things that were not widely known.” The name “Trouser Press” itself came from a song by a great British ‘60s group not widely known across the Atlantic, the Bonzo Dog Band. It wasn’t even one of their more widely known songs, wherever you might have heard the group. Robbins didn’t just know the Bonzos’ catalog—he even got the Bonzo who wrote “Trouser Press,” Roger Ruskin Spear, to draw a picture of a trouser press for him, which is reprinted in the book.
“Our first promotional piece, we called ourselves the alternative to the alternative alternatives,” Robbins continues. “We really saw ourselves conceptually as being available to do stuff that other publications weren’t doing. We saw the gap in American music magazines about British bands, and we kind of saw the gap about history. Then later on we saw the gap for indie rock, and then we saw the gap for punk rock. So in a sense, really all we were doing was looking for the stuff that other people were ignoring, and the stuff that mattered to us. Which was sort of one and the same, weirdly enough.”
Robbins didn’t just know the Bonzos’ catalog—he even got the Bonzo who wrote “Trouser Press,” Roger Ruskin Spear, to draw a picture of a trouser press for him, which is reprinted in the book.
The publication almost didn’t get to the point where it was able to be read throughout North America, Robbins and associates flogging early issues outside New York concerts in hopes of finding like-minded rock fanatics. “We just thought, ‘How can we connect ourselves with people that are potentially gonna read our magazine?,’” he remembers. “We only did it for four issues or so. But it was a terrifying way to start, ‘cause being a journalist—even a make-believe baby journalist—is not the same thing as having the chutzpah to go out on the street and hawk things.
“It was very hard for us as kids to go out and sell stuff, although I had a background in political activity, and I had sold Black Panther Party newspapers on street corners. I’d done things like that, so I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with that idea. You had to stack all the magazines in a shopping bag, carry them down there, walk around, go up to people, get quarters from people, put ‘em in your pocket, hand them the magazine, explain to them what it was.
“Also, we used to sell them inside the Academy of Music inside at the back. That was probably a really ballsy idea, without really thinking about it. We were literally flogging stuff inside a venue. But in those days, people used to sell T-shirts in parking lots, bootleg T-shirts. So it’s not completely unprecedented.
“I guess it was a little infectious when we took it to people. But I had somebody at a Deep Purple concert at Madison Square Garden kind of like pooh-pooh it—‘What’s this piece of shit?’ I literally almost punched him. I was so invested in what I was doing, and it meant so much to me. I’d put so much work into it, that having it shrugged off like that was really infuriating.”
As you can see when you call up the first few issues online, Trouser Press was more a zine than a magazine at the outset, as befits its barely professional origins. “We had meetings in subway stations and post offices,” notes Robbins. “We did the subscription mailings from somebody’s living room. The art director worked in my parents’ bedroom. I remember stapling the first issue on a card table in my parents’ living room, and getting a dent in the palm of my hand from pushing down so hard on the stapler. It was a private creation.”
Nevertheless, Trouser Press quickly attracted a growing readership of fans hungry to learn about their heroes, and writers eager to cover them. Not all of them were record collector geeks. After airmailing a copy of the first issue to Pete Townshend, Robbins was flabbergasted to get a handwritten reply with detailed minutiae of interest to precisely the diehards the magazine was targeting—confirming, for instance, that the 1966 B-side “Waltz for a Pig” “was dedicated to [producer] Shel Talmy for screwing us down to 1%.” In the days when interaction with the stars wasn’t always as impossible as it is these days, Robbins made sure Townshend got issue #3 by handing it to him personally as Pete went into a record company party Trouser Press couldn’t enter. Robbins and Schulps also showed copies to John Entwistle and Keith Moon, paying for an afternoon drinking session with the pair that ensued.
The Evolution of Trouser Press
Although Trouser Press started as an Anglophile magazine, and to some degree would remain one, within a few years its focus started to shift away from collector arcana and toward the burgeoning punk and new wave explosion. “When we started, one of the absolute standards was to run a discography with every article for the entire record collection of each artist,” Ira elaborates. “We stopped doing that after a while. There was a long stretch where we were running classified record auction ads in the back. But that was something that made sense for a number of reasons for a while, and then we were publishing 60,000 or 70,000 copies of a magazine that was running eight or nine pages of 25-cent classified ads. It didn’t make financial sense. Plus it made the rest of the magazine seem incongruous. It just seemed to be really wrong to have articles about Sex Pistols, and then page after page of, like, Dave Clark Five picture sleeve singles you needed a magnifying lens to read.
“We went through a period before punk hit where we were sort of very friendly to prog rock, which wasn’t really something that we cared about. But we had attracted writers who were into it. So we had a European music column and stuff like that.” Yet as they got deeper into the second half of the ‘70s, punk and new wave acts got more and more ink. Some of it was for major acts that were right in the magazine’s New York backyard as groups like Blondie and Talking Heads graduated from the CBGB scene to international acclaim.
“Punk had been a huge recharge for us. I grew up in the ‘60s, and for me, it was British Invasion stuff, and there was Dylan and all that kind of thing. Then fifteen years later, there’s these great bands. And I’m like loving every record that comes out. It was a huge second wind.” By the end of the 1970s, much more coverage of U.S. acts had found its way into the magazine, with cover stories on Devo, Blondie, and even some not-strictly-new-wave acts like Cheap Trick and the Cars.
Trouser Press also brought a different attitude toward reviewing and rock criticism than much of the other rock press, or what much other rock press was becoming. “There’s a whole side to editing music magazines of like, ‘You like them? Did you like this record? Give it a listen and let me know what you think.’ Which was exactly the opposite of what Trouser Press did. We would never ask somebody, other than, ‘You care? Are you interested, can you write about this?’ That was an important distinction. That’s been one of the failures of music journalism in the 21st century—the idea that you have to be predisposed to something to write about it.”
One negative review he doesn’t regret running is a very obscure one that violated unwritten rules of the rock press. The December 1979 issue of Trouser Press had a full-page ad for the debut of a forgotten band called the Now on the back cover, though in the same issue, reviewer Jon Young slammed it as “so astonishingly bad that it seems an act of cruelty to describe the contents.” The label was “really outraged about that. Honestly, it just never even occurred to us that there was a problem. We always sort of thought about advertising as being kind of a separate thing that just sort of occurred. We just weren’t smart enough to know that you had to kind of suck up to advertisers in order to keep ‘em happy. We were too stupid to know better, so we kind of didn’t even think of that stuff.
“But it’s something that I’ve been aware of the rest of my career, that you get this sort of attitude of ‘don’t rock the boat too hard.’ That goes in concert with this idea that you shouldn’t write above the heads of your readers, which is a terrible idea. You should totally write above the heads of your readers. Because that’s how people learn, and it’s how people are challenged. It’s how people get curious. If all you do is feed them what they already know, you’re not doing anybody a service.”
Music in a Word: Vol. 1 gave Robbins the opportunity to insert some colorful anecdotes that might not have made it into the magazine at the time, whether from his work as a journalist or his making his voice heard as a fan. He went record shopping with Paul Weller, who was about to buy a $50 LP by cult ‘60s mod band the Creation when Robbins whispered he could give him his spare copy for free; the owner of Bleecker Bob’s, a Greenwich Village store notorious for its brusque customer service, kicked them out. He slow-clapped during a long violin break at a Central Park concert by Italian prog band PFM; they got the message and cut the solo short. “I’m also pretty sure I had a set of drum sticks with me, and I might have been drumming on a metal chair in front of me around the same time,” Ira admits.
You should totally write above the heads of your readers. Because that’s how people learn, and it’s how people are challenged. It’s how people get curious. If all you do is feed them what they already know, you’re not doing anybody a service.”
Not all of the stories are lighthearted, Robbins regretfully recounting his falling out with Trouser Press co-founder Karen Rose a few years after the magazine started. Rose wasn’t the only woman who helped launch a rock publication in the field’s early years; as Ira is quick to point out, Liz Phillip did so for Matter in Chicago, and Connie Kramer “arguably was as important to the existence of Creem as [publisher] Barry Kramer was. But I agree that women’s role in music journalism has been kind of downplayed. The people who actually participated and achieved things need to be pushed to the fore, and have people reminded of their past existence, and their current existence.”
Robbins and Rose fell so completely out of touch that he didn’t learn of her 1989 death from lung cancer until nearly three years later. “I feel very beholden to her role in what we started,” states Robbins. “It would not have happened without her.”
The End of Trouser Press
Joey Ramone blows out a birthday cake on issue #96 of Trouser Press, marking the magazine’s tenth anniversary. It might have seemed poised for at least another decade, yet the anniversary party at New York’s Irving Plaza was as much a last hurrah as a celebration. The next day, the word was out that the tenth anniversary issue was the last. For all its relatively wide circulation, Trouser Press was still found economic survival a challenge. But that was hardly the whole story, as Robbins confirms both in the book and in our conversation.
“We had a variety of problems,” he says. “It wasn’t just the money. We could have gone on. We weren’t about to fall apart with the sheriff at our door. But the staff wasn’t really able to move into the era that the world was moving into culturally. MTV had a huge impact on the world around us. MTV, once they got underway seriously by the mid-‘80s, was essentially a national radio station, in the same way the BBC[‘s] Radio One is in Britain. America never had that before. There were obviously TV shows that played a couple hit records every weekend, like Bandstand, but that wasn’t the same thing. MTV was 24 hours a day of music that millions of kids were being exposed to.
Joey Ramone blows out a birthday cake on issue #96 of Trouser Press, marking the magazine’s tenth anniversary. It might have seemed poised for at least another decade, yet the anniversary party at New York’s Irving Plaza was as much a last hurrah as a celebration.
“That had a huge cultural impact in terms of what it meant for us to be writing about what we thought were underdogs. Because MTV kind of emptied the closet of what underdogs could be. They had the 120 Minutes show; they had a lot of ways in which they were exposing music from the corners that we had long lived in. It pulled us into the mainstream in a way that none of us were comfortable with.
“It wasn’t horrifying. It wasn’t like, ‘Jesus, how can we possibly go on another day?’ It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess we should [write about] them again’ kind of approach. Just sort of a realization that we were kind of not as keen on the stuff we were writing about.” The punk and new wave that rejuvenated his passion for rock “got us so far. The post-punk stuff, and the kind of gender chameleons thing in the New Romantics stuff, just didn’t have the same charge for me. So it was hard to care in the same way that we had.
“It was very hard, as I write in the book, to decide to shut down the magazine. I probably spent a year coming to the conclusion that it was over. I add, with some reluctance, that I probably spent about a year, just around the same time, deciding that my first marriage was over as well. Those kinds of big life decisions always weigh heavily on me, and were hard to actually come to some conviction about. Because clearly there were upsides and downsides to both of those decisions.
“There were other factors that just sort of combined to make it feel like we couldn’t do this any more. One of the things was that I was not really competent as a business manager to the degree that the business that we had evolved into needed. Somebody asked the other day, ‘How did you get to where you got to?’ I honestly don’t have an answer for that. We started with nothing, we didn’t know what we were doing. And somehow we lasted ten years and had 60,000 circulation.” Still, as he adds, “When you start out really young, turning thirty is kind of a kick in the balls. You start thinking, maybe this isn’t what I should be doing with my entire life.”
Jann Wenner had actually considered buying out Trouser Press years before as it might have been considered competition, and before it wound up operations, “We tried to sell the magazine. My Hail Mary last ditch thought was to find somebody who would take it over and carry it on. We had meetings with people, and just couldn’t find anybody who really wanted to publish it. Which was a shame, ‘cause I think it would have been fun to keep it going. But I don’t know that I would have wanted to be the one to run it. When Spin came along”—putting out its first issue in 1985, only about a year later—“it really felt to me like that Trouser Press was Spin minus the money and the corporate backing. I felt like we could have done that had somebody seen the opportunity, taken it away from me, and kind of done it on their own.”
The Trouser Press brand kept a public presence of sorts with the huge alternative rock record guides Robbins edited, writing many of the reviews himself. The fourth edition of The Trouser Press Record Guide, published in 1991, covered almost 10,000 records in about 750 pages; The Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock, actually issued in 1997 before the decade was out, ran about 850 similarly small-print pages. Most of Robbins’ post-mid-‘80s career, however, has been devoted to writing outside of rock publications, and sometimes entirely outside of rock music.
Robbins the Writer, Post-Trouser Press
After Trouser Press ceased publication, Robbins took a few jobs in print journalism and media. Besides working as a pop music critic for Long Island’s premier daily paper, Newsday, he wrote about music for literally dozens of publications, from the New York Times and Rolling Stone to Entertainment Weekly, Spin, and Musician. Music in a Word: Vol. 1 collects a wealth of his record and concert reviews from these years, encompassing everything from decidedly un-alternative stars like Michael Bolton and Whitney Houston to decidedly alternative icons like Suicidal Tendencies and cult artists like the Vulgar Boatmen. It’s not exactly what those who know Robbins mostly from Trouser Press might expect, though he doesn’t have a problem with that.
“As enormously proud of what we did as I am, I’d also like to be appreciated and acknowledged for other things that I’ve done in my life as a journalist,” he emphasizes. “Trouser Press was ten years of it, and I’ve been doing it for fifty. I wanted to demonstrate, or at least illustrate, a lot of the other stuff I’ve done.”
It’s fair to say there aren’t many music listeners who’d be fans of Bolton, Houston, and the Suicidal Tendencies and Vulgar Boatmen, to name a few of the acts he covered. Was it hard to cover such a huge range, almost as if he’d been writing about Toto and the Brothers Johnson at the same time as Trouser Press was touting the Ramones and Robert Fripp?
“No, it wasn’t difficult,” he replies. “I like to think that the limitations on journalistic breadth has a lot more to do with editorial narrow-mindedness than with journalistic skill. I’ve been an editor a lot of my life, and I’ve always been adamant about assigning against type. If somebody’s a punk rock writer, I’d like to read what they have to say about Michael Jackson. Because they never have, and they probably are full of ideas that they haven’t had a chance to express.
“My big sort of come to Jesus moment in this was when I went to work at Newsday, and had no real choice over what range I had to cover. My job was to be the reader’s representative, and really appreciate what was out there. So if that meant Dolly Parton, or Reba McEntire, or Jimmy Buffett…these were all things that in my normal life I would not be writing about. But my responsibility as a pop music editor of a major urban newspaper meant that I pretty much had to go where the fish were. Which was fine. It was interesting.
“What I wanted to convey in the book was sort of what that experience was like. For me, the challenge was always balancing my previous prejudices about things with the actual experience of them. A lot of times, I found that things were perfectly good, even though I would not have expected them to be. On the other hand, I had to be the guy that went to a Rush concert and said, ‘Oh my god, this is like the worst garbage I’ve ever seen. How could you possibly endure this rubbish?’ And then have people writing letters to the editor.
“That’s why I included that Grateful Dead review that I did with Richard Gehr. I knew that I was gonna hate them, and I knew Richard would like them. I thought we could at least find some way to give the readers some balanced opinion. Because what’s the point of me going to see them and saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve always hated them, and now I still do hate them.’ That wasn’t gonna be of any use to anybody. That was actually the first time I’d ever seen them. I had resisted it for my entire life, and then it was kind of like, well, this is my opportunity to face up to it. And as I write, it was as bad as I imagined.”
I had to be the guy that went to a Rush concert and said, ‘Oh my god, this is like the worst garbage I’ve ever seen. How could you possibly endure this rubbish?’ And then have people writing letters to the editor.
Robbins didn’t have quite as hard a time with Bruce Springsteen, a massively popular artist among even many Trouser Press readers whom Ira’s never liked. “I was able to review the Springsteen show at the Garden [in 1993] and found that it had certain appeal in that particular setting. It didn’t change the way I feel about him in general, and it didn’t change my feeling about his records. But I’d like to think that I was able to sort of discount my prejudices.” Still, in the book he finds room to remember seeing Springsteen in 1980 and turning to a friend to say “something along the lines of ‘thank Christ that’s finally finished’ only to be informed, with some amusement, that we were in for a whole second set of equal (if not greater) duration.”
Putting so much of his work into one place gave Robbins an opportunity to look back on decades-old pieces and, if not revise them, at least see how his opinions have shifted and consider whether he was right or totally fair the first time around. For Springsteen, for instance, “I found this review I’d done at Trouser Press of The River, which was pretty vicious, and then went back to see what that record sounded like. So I kind of re-reviewed it. Which is sort of an interesting idea. I’m actually toying with the idea of re-reviewing a bunch of Who albums that I was really weird about in Trouser Press. I’ve relistened to some of those Who records, and my impressions of them now are drastically different than my impressions of them then, which is kind of shameful as a journalist. But it’s also kind of an interesting experience to reconsider.
“I was kind of horrified in some cases. Being a print journalist means that a lot of opinions, and ideas that you’ve had in your life, are in print. You can’t pretend that you didn’t say that, right? I looked back at this stuff, and I felt like I really had to, in all good conscience, take responsibility for it. The two choices I felt I had were to just leave stuff out that was horrible, or to acknowledge it. Personally, I’m okay with acknowledging my failures. We’ve all done things we regret in our lives. But a lot of the things that I regret in my life are in black and white on paper, or online.”
As a couple high-profile examples, “I reviewed the first Sex Pistols album – the Sex Pistols album – and my immediate response was, ‘I’ve heard these songs already, it’s a really disappointing record.’ ‘Cause they’d released three singles that were all on the album before the album came out. I also had the Spunk bootleg, which had the entire album basically in demo form. So I remember feeling, ‘Well, this is a drag. This is kind of an anticlimax.’ I was kind of waiting for this great album from this great group, and here is all these things that I already know.
“Now clearly, 45 years later, that’s the most absurd attitude. Because for 99% of the world, this was all a brand new thing. It wasn’t a collection of singles. It was an album statement that has stood the test of time. So it’s very troubling to think back to, why was that my response? Why couldn’t I draw further away from it, and think in grander terms about what it all means? What it is, and what it could stand for.
“I guess I made the same mistake with the Nirvana album, Nevermind. Because I basically wrote about how there was no chance that it was ever gonna sell. Which is sort of an odd perspective to take on a record that you’re just writing about in Rolling Stone. Who cares if it sells or not? It’s not really the point, is it?”
Another issue infrequently addressed by rock critics, but which Robbins discusses at points in his book, is the thorny matter of reviewing musicians you admire with whom you’ve actually established friendships. “I’ve both skirted it, and stepped right into it,” he comments. “One of the allures of music journalism is getting to know people who create great art. You realize a lot of interesting ideas beyond the music that they’ve made has meaning for you. You’re supposed to then think, ‘well, okay, that was nice,’ and go back on my way. It can be hard to separate those things. It’s also hard to convince yourself sometimes that you’re not being affected by issues that are not in the music or on the stage.
“But at the same time, in my defense, I’ve always been pretty honest in my writing about what I think. The salient moment for me was when I slagged off a Cheap Trick album in Rolling Stone. That ended my friendship with them. Honestly, I don’t think I gave any thought to what this was gonna mean. I wrote the review that I had to write. I didn’t really think about what the ramifications would be. But there were certainly personal ramifications, and lasted for years. They’re behind us now, but at the time, it was kind of like, that’s that.
The salient moment for me was when I slagged off a Cheap Trick album in Rolling Stone. That ended my friendship with them. Honestly, I don’t think I gave any thought to what this was gonna mean. I wrote the review that I had to write.
Yet “I don’t think I regretted it. I don’t think I ever said to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done that because that cost me my friendship.’ ‘Cause the friendship was never as important to me as my writing about music. It never occurred to me to not write what I was gonna write because of what it might mean.”
Robbins struggled with this tension in a different way with Be-Bop Deluxe, whom he’d championed in the early days of Trouser Press. When their 1976 album Modern Music came out, however, as he wrote in a story in the magazine, “I hated it right off.” Chuckling that a reevaluation of Be-Bop Deluxe is “probably of interest to like six people,” he still looks back on his hasty judgement with seriousness, “having those twin problems of ‘I like these guys, I don’t like this record, and I’ve been promoting the shit out of these guys because I really think they’re geniuses, and now they’ve done a record that I don’t like, and I feel bad about that.’ Those are sort of the two dilemmas of that whole era for me.
“The kicker, of course, is that I went back and listened to this stuff, and it’s like, what the hell was I so upset about? One of the things I got really interested in doing in this book was trying to imagine what it was that made me so disappointed in records when that happened. What was the letdown that I was feeling that was so troubling, that I had to write such negative reviews about things? That part I don’t understand.
“The thing I’m trying to get at is that feeling of being disappointed. Like you kind of wanted the record to be something, and it’s not. Or you have an image of what the band can accomplish, and they don’t. A lot of times, the further you pull away from those experiences with time, the less the distinction seems to exist. Whatever it was that seemed so completely awful at the time, is completely inaudible.
“The more subtle impact has to do with when you think of people’s feelings. Not so much what it means to your friendship with them. But when you start to think of musicians as real people and you think, ‘this is really gonna hurt somebody to hear this’. That’s really changed in the last twenty years, because you now get feedback from people. When we were starting out, the worst that would happen is you’d get a letter in the mail once in a while from somebody, like a Joan Jett letter.” (The brief handwritten letter, which is actually not too angry, is reprinted in the book, and now hangs on the wall of his record room.)
“But the idea that you kind of get slapped back immediately by a hundred people for writing something makes it a lot more difficult to have strong opinions in print these days. I think it’s discouraged a lot of music journalism from having strong opinions, especially strong negative opinions. And that’s been a real kind of demerit to the state of music journalism, the fear that you’re gonna hurt somebody’s feelings.”
The Robbins Transcripts
Music in a Word: Vol. 1 also includes what might be considered “outtakes” of material that didn’t run at the time it was written and researched. Foremost among these are transcripts of interviews that haven’t previously been published in full, although quotes from some were used in stories. As with the wealth of concert and record reviews, you’d need pretty broad taste to be interested in all of these, or at least to be more or less equally interested in all of them.
Peter Buck and Mike Mills of R.E.M., Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies, Kirsty MacColl, and Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch are among the most illustrious interviewees. The lengthy chat with McCulloch, in fact, was done for a story that never even ran. Robbins also presents numerous bits for a 1985 “where are they now” Rolling Stone feature that didn’t make it into the final cut. Quite a few bits, actually; only 17 were used, though he did 42 short profiles, all based on brief first-hand interviews. Even tracking down many of them took a lot of effort in those pre-Internet days; Lee Michaels, he was told, was “living on the beach. No house, no car, no phone.”
As Robbins notes, “I thought, ‘well, here’s something I can offer that isn’t just stuff that you could have read online anyway’. It wasn’t strictly the idea of things that were from articles that didn’t get published, like Kirsty MacColl and Ian McCulloch. It was also just the idea that you do an interview for an hour, back in the day when interviews were lengthy—it could go on and on and on. You use a couple thousand words from them, and there’s so much more.
“Also I wanted to expose sort of the dynamic of what I think was a good interview. I was pretty surprised, reading over some of those things, how blunt, forthright, and tough some of my questions were. I probably would be very hard-pressed to do that kind of level inquisition these days with an artist, unless I was very comfortable with them. I didn’t know Ian McCulloch from Adam, and I’m asking him about drunkenness and stuff like that. Now, a publicist would shoo you out of the room, if you were even in the room. Like, your Zoom call would end.”
Interviews with Milton Berle and Steve Allen about Elvis Presley’s early television appearances are among the best and most unusual that he collected, especially as Ira could use only some of the quotes for the TV Guide feature it generated. When Elvis was on his show, Berle recalled, “Harry James said ‘where’s your orchestration?’ Elvis picked out one sheet of music, a lead sheet, not an orchestra arrangement, and said, ‘Here it is.’ They laughed at him. He started to strum on the guitar and I caught a glance of James and Buddy Rich looking at each other. Rich made a square sign with his fingers and pointed at Elvis. I walked over and had a little beef with them. I said, ‘That’s very rude of you. Wait ‘til you see him, you’re going to be surprised.’”
I didn’t know Ian McCulloch from Adam, and I’m asking him about drunkenness and stuff like that. Now, a publicist would shoo you out of the room, if you were even in the room. Like, your Zoom call would end.”
Nearly ninety years of age when Robbins spoke to him, Berle was friendly and loquacious, signing off with an “alright baby, let me hear from you.” Not all interviews were as pleasant, even if they dug up a lot of useful info. “Steve Allen I always thought was a dick, and he kind of came off like a dick when I interviewed him. I interviewed Wink Martindale and [Jimmy] Dean for that, and they just weren’t that interesting. They were more cut and dried. But talking to Milton Berle, it was like having the ghost of Charlie Chaplin come to chat or something like that. Who knows how much of it is stories he’s told for fifty years, which may or may not be true. But it was nice having it.”
Marc Bolan Killed in Crash
Now retired from his day job, in recent years Robbins has also turned his talents toward fiction. His second novel, Marc Bolan Killed in Crash, isn’t about T. Rex, but the entire British ‘70s glam era, following the sharp rise and fall of a teenage girl who backs into a career as glam star Rockit LA. Although there’s plenty of the expected sex and good-time rock’n’roll, there’s also tragedy in a story where, as Robbins acknowledges, all the characters “essentially come to sorry ends.”
Why a novel now, about fifty years after he started as a rock journalist, and about fifty years after glam’s heyday? “I wanted to write about the glam rock era. It was my second novel; the first one [Kick It Till It Breaks] is about underground ‘60s radicals, a subject near and dear to my heart. The criticism that I got from people at the time was, ‘Why don’t you write about music? You’re known as a music journalist, why did you write about something no one expects from you?’ So I thought, ‘okay, I’ll give that a shot’.”
The book pays much more accurate attention to period detail than many a novel set in the rock world, down to the teenage protagonist’s pithy mini-reviews of a stack of singles she’s assigned to review by a sleazy management team, as if she’s a one-person focus group. These almost read like the work of a fan who’d soon mature into a Trouser Press writer, chiding “Message to Dave—try coming back to earth, okay?” in her assessment of Bowie’s “Starman.” Her write-up of Wings’ “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is nastier: “More twee spittle. Who buys this junk? Earth to Paul McCartney—piss off!”
According to Robbins, “It was easy to kind of imagine what a kid would say about those records. I just put ‘em on and listened to them, and sort of thought, well, if I was crass and uninformed, how would I respond to these records? I just kind of like grappled with it that way.” In a few years, Rockit LA herself is the target of such critical barbs, calling out a few of the most acerbic British punk/new wave specialists, like Nick Kent, and Julie Burchill, by name. “It’s funny, that list of writers, I actually had to take somebody out,” he reveals. “Someone that read the book early on who knows all of the guilty parties said so-and-so would never piss on anybody.”
In a more serious vein, “It was kind of expressing an opinion that many musicians have shared with me—that when they don’t like the way they’re being treated in the press, it’s the press’s fault.
I didn’t pick writers”—also including Garry Bushell, Paul Morley, and Tony Parsons—“out of the hat. Those were people who were the most vindictive, angry, aggressive writers. But I wanted her to feel like she’d been treated unfairly.”
Rockit LA starts out as a somewhat sympathetic character when she’s just a fairly average teenage girl getting pushed around like a pinball by exploitative managers. She becomes less likable as she buys into the hype and backstabbing necessary to climb the ladder to stardom. “The point of the book for me was really the arc of artistic success,” says Robbins. “That it kind of breeds bad people; to try to say that no one here gets out alive, basically. It really is about how stardom is just a diabolical thing. There aren’t really any heroes in the book. There’s people who act kind of decently, and she has her resurgence at the end. But she’s corrupted the same way that her predecessors have been corrupted.
“Which in a sense is my view of that whole era. Those careers were very ephemeral. Obviously Bowie was not one of them. Obviously there were major artists. Slade had a long career, Mott the Hoople, and Bolan. But a lot of the really great pop artists of the glam era were very ephemeral. There’s a bunch of bands that have like one chart hit in Britain. That whole thing just came and went. I was trying to convey the idea that this was really transient. And the people were transient too.”
The Next Volumes
Unable to find a publisher for Marc Bolan Killed in Crash, Robbins issued it himself in both ebook and print-on-demand forms. He’s not through with Music in a Word, with two more volumes in the works. “I originally organized this as one pile, one huge volume,” he explains. “But when I realized that it was on the order of 1,500 or 1,600 pages of content, I realized it had to be broken up. So, I hit on the idea, kind of late in the game, to divide it into three volumes.
“The second volume, I picked like seven or eight artists that I’ve written the most about, and assembled everything that I’ve written about each of them into a section”—those artists being the Clash, Cheap Trick, Ramones, Nirvana, Kinks, Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, and the Replacements. Liner notes, critics polls, correspondence, essays, and other odds and ends will be collected in volume three.
If Robbins remains most identified with Trouser Press, he seems okay with that. “My biggest adult thought about Trouser Press is how much more impact it had culturally and on my personal life since it ended than it ever did while it was in business,” he considers. “It’s one of those ‘don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ kind of feelings. I’m not saying that at any point I regret the end of Trouser Press, ‘cause it had to end.
“But for a number of reasons, it has proven to be much more beneficial to me personally. And certainly much more lauded in the public sphere now that there’s social media, in which you can have those sorts of back and forth conversations with people you don’t know, that we never had when we were sitting in a tiny office on Fifth Avenue and opening the mail every day. There’d be three subscription orders, and a letter to the editor saying, ‘How come you wrote something mean about Duran Duran?’
“It was very hard to have any sense of what impact you were having at the time or whether people cared. We had a hard time making ends meet, staying in business, making a dime, and keeping people employed. Now, all I have to do is post something online, and you get people going like, ‘I loved Trouser Press when I was growing up in Tulsa, it was my lifeline.’ It’s been very rewarding in an afterlife aspect. That was one of the things I tried to convey.”