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Monday, October 28, 2002

Back in My Day, Music Magazines Were Actually Worth Reading
I read a couple of music magazines this weekend for the first time in decades. When I was at school, I was obsessed with music (and other things—what’s adolescence for if not obsessions and providing your friends and family with the means to embarrass you years later on This Is Your Life). Back then, the highlight of my week was the arrival of the music mags—Sounds on Wednesday (rather poppy for my tastes, but it was something), then the NME and Melody Maker on Thursday. I read, nay, inhaled them all, but there was nothing like the NME. On the long bus ride to and from school on Thursdays, I’d read and inwardly digest the news and reviews, and then I’d get to the real thrill: the NME crossword. (The knowledge that was required to successfully complete the crossword didn’t entirely conform to my tastes. It was years before I actually heard the song that appeared in more crosswords than any other—all those vowels—Iron Butterfly’s “In a Gadda Da Vida.”) In my university years I’d buy Rolling Stone from a very sordid and yet incredibly well-stocked newsstand in Manchester. But that was 20 years or so ago.

Last weekend I picked up the women in rock issue of Rolling Stone, and man has it changed. True, it was a “special issue,” that red-headed stepchild of marketing and ad sales departments, so perhaps I shouldn’t judge on the basis of this one issue, but ooh it’s hard not to. Although they managed to include prominent women from a relatively wide range of musical genres (I’m way out of the mainstream music scene these days, but there was only one artist that I hadn’t heard of—Nikka Costa), the only kind of article they could dream up was a bland Q and A, recycling a lot of the same questions among the different interviewees. Sure, I read pretty much every word in the magazine, which says something for the choices they made, but everything was appallingly superficial.

The saddest part was comparing the current shallow quick-take approach to the old-style RS. Here and there the magazine featured old magazine covers, crammed with the names of big-name-author contributors (everything in this issue was written by second-tier stringers) and serious topics—George Wallace, Nicaragua, Vietnam. And the back-of-the-book ad pages that used to be full of bumper stickers and T-shirts now seem to be the exclusive domain of erectile-dysfunction pills and porn videos.

The other magazine I read was Songlines, a “world music” magazine published in Britain. I’d bought and been rather disappointed by the first relaunch issue, but No. 2 (actually No. 15 if you include the original run) was much better. I’m a keen consumer of world music, but it is a genre (yes, yes, I know it's lazy and silly to roll all the non-mainstream/non-Western music of the world into one category, but humor me) that requires a bit of hand-holding. For all that's objectionable about the star-maker machinery of popular music, it does (reluctantly) serve an educational purpose. It’s much harder to figure out which new Eastern European gypsy release is worth buying (for, say, folks who prefer Taraf de Haidouks over Boris Kovac & LaDaABa Orchest) or when Radio Tarifa will release a new CD. And this is definitely the kind of magazine where the ads are just as interesting as the editorial content. The covermount CD—featuring acts that record on Germany’s Piranha label, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year—was also excellent. A nice variety of styles and some very appealing tracks by artists I wasn’t familiar with, such as “Ayga,” by Ali Hassan Kuban; “Raggasthausten,” by Daniele Sepe; and “Kochav Tzedek,” by Emil Zrihan.