When the news broke two weeks ago that The Los Angeles Times was parting ways after a little more than half a year with its top-dollar superstar critic-at-large, former New Yorker music writer Sasha Frere-Jones, most of the online chatter and regurgitation of the scoop in The Wrap focused on his alleged ethical shortcomings.
According to reports that have not been denied in the weeks since, Frere-Jones had submitted an expense form for a $5,000 tab at a strip club (this to a paper owned by Chicago’s struggling Tribune Publishing); accepted but bowed out of a luxury trip sponsored by Dom Pérignon, and promised an artist coverage in exchange for a free ride to Coachella.
L.A. Times staffers tell me, however, that Frere-Jones’ productivity was actually overstated in his Internet shaming: He only wrote 34 stories in his approximately 30-week tenure, not 45 as reported. And no one as yet has bothered to look at the quality of the work he did deign to do for the paper, which over the years has had some terrific critics on its cultural beats (Mary MacNamara! Lorraine Ali! Todd Martens!) as well as a few embarrassing ones (Robert Hilburn, a nice man, but one who thought popular music began and ended with U2 and Bruce Springsteen).
Here, then, are my votes for Frere-Jones’ three “greatest hits” in The L.A. Times—pieces that were either insane, inane, incomprehensible, solipsistic, or all of the above.
Clearly, Frere-Jones got nowhere near the level of editing at The L.A. Times that he got at The New Yorker, where his contributions (with a few notable exceptions) were good to great. This cutesy, nonsensical idea should have been torpedoed at the earliest stage, and what finally ran should have been read by someone who actually could read before it was published, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense. In it, the author channels a personnel boss giving performance reviews to pop stars. Here’s an excerpt from the one on Adele.
B. Performance Assessment
- 1. Artist’s strong return surprised and pleased staff. Several staff assumed executive summary contained typo, but artist’s Instagram account was established on Oct. 22, 2015, not 2010. (Latter was the year Twitter account was established, though artist rarely uses this feed.) There was potential intramural friction in some unattributed commentary that this artist achieved the same effect as the Prime™ [PARTNERSHIP PENDING] Artist, but with much less effort. Staff is trying to promote unity at UniBrand retreats and wants to explicitly reduce artist-versus-artist scenarios.
- 2. Staff posted conflicting views in regards to latest audio-video widget, “Hello.” There was statistically negligible input that artist’s style might not be viable deep into 21st century. Remainder of staff was crying and did not fill out feedback forms.
- 3. Staff assumes artist’s full-length widget will sell in all formats and has arranged for 780 million iterations of master to be available to the public.
C. Professional Development Plan
1. Staff votes to retract previous social media plan and suspend iVersal marketing input. Some younger staff members are not connecting with artist and are identifying as “birthers.” Staffer Ashley Spronce — who quit and thereby relinquished her contractual right to anonymity — wrote, “No WAY Adele is only 19 months older than Taylor. 1989 4ever!” Staffer confused as to what “leap year” is.
D. Staff Comments
1. Staff was unable to generate any specific feedback. Several staffers submitted “shruggies.” One senior executive wrote, “Get out of her way and go home early.”
Though one of the primary tasks of the daily newspaper critic is the obituary of a fallen star, Frere-Jones seems to have tackled these assignments only begrudgingly, focusing not on the artist, but on the favored subject of himself. Just try to find some insight into Bowie in the opening paragraphs of this Bowie piece, or make sense of exactly what Philip K. Dick has to do with anything.
Losing David Bowie isn’t like losing a favorite musician or losing a parent. I’ve experienced both. I am not sure I know what he was to me.
In my life, Bowie ended up embodying the plot of a science fiction novel. I don’t think he’d have minded showing up in someone’s life, but he might have been disappointed that he was acting out a novel someone else had already used.
Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was the basis for “Blade Runner.” A central idea of the book, one that drives the movie, is that a replicant (an android) can be filled with the memories of a human. When a synthetic creature can be loaded with the organic, emotional information of a person, it complicates the issue of what is or isn’t human. If a thing can cry about your childhood, because of your childhood, how is it a thing? Isn’t that all you can do? There are no robots in my story but someone else’s memories became mine because Bowie put them there.
My ex-wife, the mother of my children, spent years talking about a college boyfriend. They had gone on this romantic, slightly obvious trip to Europe, during her sophmore [SIC] year, and said goodbye to the strains of “Heroes.” It was a story that, by osmosis, became my memory. Very little made my wife cry, but “Heroes” did. We always had to turn it off when it came on. Eventually, I would cry when I’d hear the song in public, though I wasn’t referencing my own memory. I was responding to the echo of someone else’s memory.
Our marriage ended, but the college boyfriend returned, decades later. He is with her now, still, like “Heroes,” which is there for those who need it.
Another obit/appreciation; apparently, the lasting legacy of Sir George is his resonance or lack thereof with Frere-Jones, once a member of the two-bass indie combo UI, best known for a brief collaboration with Stereolab.
I was 7 years old the first time I read the word “producer” on an album. My parents, who owned mostly classical music LPs, had a handful of pop albums. They were all by the Beatles.
The album I listened to most was “Rubber Soul” because I liked the bit in “I’m Looking Through You” where a buzzing little guitar phrase appears right after the chorus. I didn’t know I was looking for louder guitars, or noise, or punk rock. And I didn’t know what a producer was. But there at the bottom of the back cover were the words “Produced by GEORGE MARTIN.” I figured he had something to do with that funny, nasty guitar sound.
On Tuesday, George Martin died, at age 90. I’ve spent most of my life as a musician and a critic learning his work, forgetting his influence, avoiding him, relearning him and living in a world whose boundaries were his, for better and worse.
By the time I turned 21, I had already started my second band. We had just covered “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a Beatles song I will still play without complaint, though there are dozens I simply can’t because I’ve heard them so often I no longer recognize them as music. For my birthday, my parents gave me a newly published book by Mark Lewisohn called “The Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Abbey Road Studio Notes, 1962-1970.”
Like millions of other musicians after me, I read about all the tricks Martin, along with engineers Geoff Emerick and Ken Townsend, employed on “Tomorrow Never Knows.” I was forever enlightened, puzzled and spoiled. There probably isn’t a rock band that hasn’t tried something stupid like swinging a microphone around someone while they sing or finding a Leslie cabinet — a box housing a speaker that rotates during playback — because they had the idea, loosely gleaned from Martin, that their unimpressive song would somehow get better if something was run through the Leslie and recorded on its own track.
How, oh how, will one of America’s great newspapers ever survive without such wit, wisdom, insight, and dare we say genius?
Pretty easily, I’d guess.