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Joshua Clover is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Davis. He’s written a number of books over the years, but his latest is the first in a new series from Duke University Press called Singles, each of which focuses on a single song. In this interview, Joshua explains why he chose Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” for his book and much more.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
It’s hardly been a straight line but that is true for many people. I apologize for a long answer that still leaves much out.
I’m a professor and scholar who specializes in political economy and social movements, basically. But in 1996 or so I was just a person with a creative writing degree, assembling office furniture to pay rent, trying to write poems. I fell into music journalism by chance, though it’s the kind of chance that you get more of when you’re a white person with access to a lot of education and so on. My “career” was relatively brief. My first article ever was for the Village Voice (which is where I had learned about music writing in the first place, reading it every week in the Eighties). It was about the “Macarena” craze; it was commissioned by Evelyn McDonnell, based on a music zine I wrote under a pen name. That might have been the end of that; I didn’t know there was a thing called “pitching,” they changed editors, life moved on. But a year later the new editor asked me to review some terrible U2 record (they are all terrible). I’m not sure why but things really took off from there.
I say “I’m not sure why” but I eventually came to have a sense of why I had whatever success I did. I trained originally as a writer, so when I came to music journalism, I was pretty ignorant about the music biz and about journalism, but I was a person who thought carefully about the phrase, about the goal of saying something in a compelling way in a small space. And because I am a very anxious person, I turned in assignments on time and at word count. Like, without fail. That’s a good start: I didn’t ask too much labor of editors. Editors like that, the people who pay the editors like that. It got to the point where, for a 400 word review at SPIN, I would turn it in at 407 with an intentionally mediocre 8 word phrase inserted that I knew Jon Dolan would cut because he had to do something, and he’d make the cut, he had a great ear, and off it would go.
But then there’s this added dimension. I have loved music madly, read about it constantly, memorized weekly charts and album credits, turned down extremely lovely human interactions to lie around by myself listening to new releases. In some sense that is common. That’s just a Type of Guy. But a lot of people who fit that profile—especially at that time, at the places I was working—the music they loved was often, like, a certain kind of upper-middlebrow high credibility music with a limited audience. And you just don’t need that many people covering the Yo La Tengo beat or Add N to (X) or whatever. However, when you get someone who can more or less keep up with the writerly music obsessives but is totally ready to make the case not just for why Britney matters, or Oasis, but why they’re good—that’s a useful commodity for a music glossy.
So: my talent in the end was to turn in clean copy that didn’t stress the editors and propped up the aesthetic legitimacy of Top 40 stars. You put that all together circa 1997 and you’re gonna get work. A year after the U2 review I was a senior writer at SPIN, two years after that I peaked at $3/word from GQ.
But there were also real limits. For one thing, I am terrible at feature writing. It is a real skill and I don’t have it. I don’t get the narrative structure. I don’t really care about personality, and I am terrible at making famous people (or maybe anyone) feel comfortable enough to spill the tea. So I was never going to be that star journalist who does cover stories where you hang out with Rihanna in Turks and Caicos or whatever. I was always going to be a well-regarded think piece guy. Moreover, the purpose of corporate music magazines is, you know, selling stuff. I was clear that my job was just to give that basic function a veneer of…verve? Intellectual cred? I accepted this for a while because the money was good. And I adored a lot of the people. But much about the business put me off. Here is a story of maybe my least favorite moment.
At the end of the millennium, Tina Brown, having left The New Yorker, started this magazine called Talk. They were hilariously well-funded, I think it was Miramax/Weinstein dough. They flew me out from California to offer me the job as the music writer. I had this conversation with Sam Sifton, one of the lead editors. At one point I asked him what the lead time was, which is an issue that mattered to me because, you know, on the one hand we are still in the age of slow-moving print culture, and on the other, my beat is fast-moving, chart-leaping, ephemeral pop, and it’s best to catch phenomena at their peak.
The answer, it turned out, was 59 days between finished copy and when an article streeted—same as SPIN. Sifton said something like, “but that’s what we want, we want someone who can tell us what’s going to be big in four, five, six months.” Then he turned oddly aggro, challenging: “So tell us: what’s going to be big in six months?” I was anxious, as ever, but I was pretty put off. I am interested in what happens and why, not in being a market forecaster. I said, “Sam, if I could tell you that, I wouldn’t be here, some label would be paying me half a million dollars a year.” I think he could hear my disgust. That was the end of that.
When I eventually concluded I needed to make a real change in my life, a year or two after that, I went through elaborate efforts to get out of the business that eventually succeeded; two years after that, in 2003, I landed in my current job. And I have taken advantage of tenure to drift, in my scholarship, toward politics more explicitly, even if it was always my implicit concern. Still, some days I really miss the world of music journalism. I wish I was hanging out with Rihanna in Turks and Caicos right now but I’m not.
Can you please briefly describe the book?
It’s about freedom. That’s a joke, it has to be, but let me try to make good on it. It’s the first book in a series called Singles: short books each about a single song. This one is about “Roadrunner,” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. That may seem like a narrow constraint, one song, but I think it’s the opposite. It’s a great song, incomparable in its mystery and plainness, but that doesn’t take long to say. It has a fascinating and unusual recording and release history, but that also doesn’t take so long to say. You have to spin outward.
A book about an album, it could go song by song and pretty much stay within that. A single song, I think you’re bound to leave it far behind. By chapter four I’m on to Bollywood and by five I’m on to the perils of a financialized economy. I know one or two people have been thrown by the way the book discusses things that don’t immediately seem related to the song and doubtless the lines that I see very clearly, the red threads that hold everything together, they may just be in my head. But I don’t see any other possible outcome. It’s not a review, it’s a book. In the end I don’t think there’s any way to talk about any song that has successfully lodged itself in the culture, that has endured in more and less obvious ways, without talking about all the things it touches on, all the thoughts it makes available. The question is not, “What does this song mean?” The question is, “What does this song let me think?” Or maybe, “What is it about the world that makes it possible for this song to keep meaning, fifty years on?”
For me this spiraling outward led in two directions. One is toward trying to give a new account of, I don’t know how else to say it, the basis of rock & roll, the spirit but also the underlying social forces, which for me have a lot to do with industrialization, with the postwar boom, with the appearance of the great highway system. The joyride captures pretty much all of this, or at least one side of it, the side that holds that feeling we most associate with rock music, of liberation. There is no greater song about a joyride than “Roadrunner.” It conjures the freedom of that race along the dark highway, exultant freedom, limitless freedom, boring freedom, it comes as close to getting that right as maybe any song ever. But, you know, that spectral freedom of the late night driver is always haunted by an unfreedom, by the misery of someone working on the assembly line at the auto plant. And, this is the kicker, they’re the same. The freedom and unfreedom exist in a single body. The person at the wheel, the person on the line, these are not two different people, though classical economics treats them like they are. They’re just two different times of day.
And this is a figure for the general condition of society in our time, even if you’re not using the product you actually fabricate, even if you’re not a wage worker. You’re still part of the social collective that produces all the shit that you then have to buy back to live your life. So all the freedom to be found in that, it’s a bit chimerical. The social wealth that defines the rock era is built on the expropriation of others, on Black slavery and Indigenous dispossession especially. But also on the subjugation of labor, all kinds of labor, paid and unpaid. And that labor regime is driven by the engine of the American industrial revolution, which is born one town over from where Jonathan Richman is born, and realizes itself with car culture.
During the Long Boom that follows the war, which is basically the period between jazz and hip-hop, even during this period of unparalleled growth, it remains the case that for the great majority of humans, any brief experience of liberation—even if it’s just the liberty of having no particular place to go—is tethered to an overriding servitude. One exists against the other but also because of the other. That contradiction, I don’t think you can really understand the origins of rock & roll without trying to inhabit it, inhabit the particular ways that contradiction is structured during the boom. I don’t think you can get rock & roll without getting how the astounding expression of freedom requires the suppression of the factory, of all kinds of work. Even the work of being a rock star, which is in the end the work that Jonathan so pointedly refused.
And the other direction, maybe it’s the same direction finally, is not so much the origin but the end, not of music but of, oh, everything? The world I just described, its particular ordering, is just coming undone as Jonathan heads out onto Route 128. However you phrase it, the collapse of industrialization is the language of the end. Certainly the end of rock music, and not a moment too soon! Certainly the end of the US as the great power and engine of global capitalism, though such a leviathan is slow in decaying. Or at least it seems like it’s taking forever.
How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you?
The social or political content—the transformations of the world around 1973, which our greatest historians date as the peak (and thus the beginning of decline) for the US empire—has been my central topic in various ways for more than a decade, since the 2008 crisis got me interested in capitalist crisis more broadly. I am particularly interested in the way that industrial production (which is an abstract way of talking about these really concrete things, how people work, how people live, who is and who is not excluded from social existence, how people fight to get free) gives way to a logic of circulation, things like the rise of transport and logistics, consumption-oriented economies, the rise of finance, and so on. If the question was (and it was), Which single song allows you to think through these things anew, add something to them, think in return about what this meant for music, then “Roadrunner,” a song from 1972 that is all about going around and around…well, it’s a natural.
Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal.
This is a sort of hilarious story. About four years ago I was talking to the director at Duke University Press, Ken Wissoker, whom I had first met at a pop music conference many years before. He’s a prince. We were talking about a different book I had in mind, literary criticism, politics; I was curious as to whether Duke might be interested. They’re my favorite academic press so I was being ambitious. He was generous, but he added somewhat plaintively, “I always thought if we worked together it would be about music.” And I sort of panicked, and tossed out this idea I had been kicking around for a while, a series of books about individual songs.
People often see this in relation to the 33 1/3 series of books about albums, which I think is fair. For me, I spent a lot of my music writing life making the case for singles against albums; once you get digitalization and disaggregation, the album becomes a residual form, and it was never anything more than an interlude in the history of recorded music. I’m a singles person. I thought of the series more in the lineage of, say, Greil Marcus’s superb book about “Like A Rolling Stone,” and then this conference tradition called “Critical Karaoke,” where a critic gets up and offers an account of a single song while it is playing. When the song is done, you’re done. The time constraint can provide some real clarity and focus.
So I just freestyled the fuck out of this in a hotel bar in Philadelphia, and Ken basically said, sure, I’ll take it to the board, I think the chances are good, but you have to write the first book in the series. Now here we are. I guess the lesson is, volunteer to take on a lot of unpaid editorial work and it ups your odds? That seems like a bad lesson. Hmm.
How did you go about writing the actual book?
I’m never sure what counts as process. When I’m working on a book, I write every day. I go start to finish, because I am not always sure where I can get to next until I have a solid place to stand and peer out. I start by editing whatever I wrote the day before until I feel like I can move on. That part is actually really pleasurable, trying to make sure that you really said what you wanted to say, tinkering, catching the unclarities you couldn’t see when you were in the middle of it, making sure that if something feels mysterious, it’s supposed to. And then I try to write 500 good new words. This part is less pleasant by far and takes me anywhere from four to ten hours, including the part where I get so disgusted with my own limitations that I have to walk away, take a nap or something, and then get angry at myself for slacking, drink some tea because by then I’ve hit my coffee maximum, and sit my ass back down.
As a writer, I’m a formalist. I don’t mean formal as in stiff, I hope. I mean first of all, I like to have a schema. My previous book, for example, which tries to offer a new theory of riots, had three sections for three historical movements, each section had three chapters, and so on. I had a pleasingly orthogonal wall chart. For Roadrunner, I kicked around a variety of schemes to provide it some shapeliness. I eventually settled on six chapters, in part because the song famously begins with the idiosyncratic count-in “1-2-3-4-5-6.” And each chapter (one is just a very short introduction) revolves around a single song: either the title song, which gets two chapters to itself, or a song that opens out the story that “Roadrunner” is trying to tell.
But the other formalist element is something like style. Some people would call it “voice,” but I never really understood that category. I have to find a sound for myself that I like, that feels true to the thing I am writing about. This book is, basically, a whole lot of long, wheeling, run-on sentences, because after all that is the song’s nature, that car that just keeps rolling past things without stopping. Once I found the right style to pour into the schema, I was off and running. Or driving.
What was the easiest thing about the whole project?
Justifying the song. I would tell my friends and colleagues that I was writing a book about a single song and of course you get the immediate and sometimes skeptical or anxious question, “What song?” And I would tell them. One or two people had never heard of it. But everyone else, person after person, pretty much without fail responded, Obviously—what an incredible song. Which was reassuring; it’s terribly easy to convince yourself, when writing a book, that it’s about the wrong thing. Maybe they were lying to be polite but that’s cool too, it was helpful regardless. Thanks, friends!
What was the hardest thing about the whole project?
You might mean something like conceptual blocks or research dead ends or something. But in my case, I was probably a couple-few thousand words in when I had a terrible accident on my bike, got hit by a truck, flatlined in the ambulance, elaborate surgeries, the whole nine. That really slowed things down. There was a long recovery and I was pretty heavily medicated. It took me a while to get back to writing. The book is better for it though; I had more opportunity to think, and to find the sound.
Did you have any mentors in your career? What did they teach you?
I dunno about mentors. I have absolutely learned from the examples of a bunch of music writers, starting with Greil Marcus, Ellen Willis, and Bob Christgau. Later I would get to know Greil and Bob (Ellen, sadly, is no longer with us) and they have both been very generous and supportive, especially Greil, whom I originally met because I needed to photograph a certain piece of art for the cover of my first poetry book, and it turned out he had a copy!
But I also learned a vast amount about the craft of music writing from serious editors that I have had in my life, none more than Eric Weisbard at the Voice who was really my teacher in the school of what to cut and what to leave in. And then I also want to mention Jessica Hopper, who brought a punk ethic to music writing in a way I have always found moving. I don’t mean a punk aesthetic (that is probably easier) but an ethic. How to let your political principles set the terms of your writing rather than being a sort of addition. That’s not so easy, especially if your ethic is confrontational, especially once you get into the world of money journalism. She’s a fucking fighter and I love that.
What’s one tip that you’d give someone looking to write a music book right now?
I don’t feel qualified to answer this question. I was lucky to be a professional music writer before it was financially hollowed out by changes in the media landscape. And I wasn’t part of the Yale mafia but I was certainly legible to them. And now I am in a situation where I have a solid day job and can make pretty deliberate choices regarding what and how I write, if I can find the time. I feel so fortunate in that regard.
I think people who are on the hustle now have a lot of constraints and pressures that I don’t really know about, or can’t feel as keenly, and I don’t want to offer some out of touch bullshit advice. I admire them, is all. The thing I always tell students who are writing dissertations is, try to write about something you really believe is fascinating, that way at least you’re writing downhill.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a book of political theory titled for the moment Two Problems, Two Limits, The Rev. The incomparable Aimé Césaire wrote, at the outset of Discourse on Colonialism, “The fact is that the so-called European civilization—“Western” civilization—as it has been shaped by two centuries of bourgeois rule, is incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem.” That description of the global impasse remains unerring. Those are the two problems. The two limits for any political struggle in the present are climate collapse and the end of capitalist growth. The rev is the rev.
Anything you want to plug?
I recently discovered yuzo koshō, the Japanese seasoning. It’s amazing.
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