Monday, August 20, 2018

J.R. Young & The Review As Fiction


The Rolling Stone Record Review, by The Editors Of Rolling Stone
August, 1971  Pocket Books

In my review of Death Rock I mentioned obscure early Rolling Stone contributor J.R. Young, who introduced the novel concept of writing short stories instead of straight reviews. Inspired by Fabe’s novel I decided to give the Young stories another read, so got out my copy of The Rolling Stone Record Review and my Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM.

According to the CD-ROM, Young contributed 26 articles, most of them reviews, between February 1970 and December 1973. But as noted below, this number is suspect, as per The Rolling Stone Record Review Young had pieces in the April and November 1969 issues, which would make it 28 total – that is, if there aren’t more in addition to those two. I’ll have to figure this out someday. Anyway, Young was doing short stories from the beginning, and it was my assumption that he only eventually moved to regular reviews due to editorial/reader pressure or because he’d gotten burned out on the short story format. But in fact he was also doing regular reviews from the beginning; of the 28 (known) pieces he contributed to Rolling Stone, only eleven of them were short stories, all contributed between April 1969 and January 1971. And I’m not sure about any editorial pressure; The Rolling Stone Record Review features an entire section devoted to Young, titled “The Review As Fiction,” and has an intro perhaps written by RS honcho Jann Wenner that enthuses over his work:

The problem of communicating one’s thoughts about an album by writing a story rather than directly dealing with bass lines, influences, production flaws, and the like, is nearly insurmountable. Perhaps the only reviewer to come to terms with this exacting form has been J.R. Young, a mild-mannered young man who lives on a lush 15-acre farm in a tiny town in Oregon “where we have a nice garden, but we also have these funny little bugs in the cold water.” Don’t let his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Oregon or his two years’ teaching experience at the State University of New York fool you – the man’s a good writer.

This brief intro is all that’s really known about the mysterious J.R. Young, whose first name it appears was “Jeff.” Several years ago I started a thread about Young at the Steve Hoffman forum, and in 2015 a woman who was briefly Young’s sister-in-law, in the early ‘60s, kindly filled in some details about him. We know from it that he was into the blues, that he lived in Oregon for a time (one of his early Rolling Stone contributions is a short feature about an Oregon co-op), and that he moved to California – and apparently slipped into the aether, as there’s no other info about him I can find. Some have claimed that he did his short story reviews for Creem after leaving Rolling Stone, but I’ve never owned a copy of Creem so can’t attest to that. I’d love to hear from anyone out there who knows, though.

Young’s “reviews” perfectly capture the vibe of the era, and for the most part his protagonists are dopesmoking hippies – kids, really, with the majority of them barely into their teens. Only one or two stories feature adult characters. But somehow Young was able to tap into the hazed zeitgeist of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s; while his stories rarely ever feature anything having to do with music other than the characters occasionally listening to it, he still manages to convey the spirit of rock.

So here is a rundown of the short stories Young wrote for Rolling Stone, in order of publication date. I’ll follow the Rolling Stone naming method – artist name, album name, and date of the issue in which it appeared. An asterisk denotes that the story was included in The Rolling Stone Record Review.

The G.T.O.s, Permanent Damage (4/16/69)* – This short tale was apparently Young’s first; it isn’t listed when you sort by “Contributor” in the Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM; the earliest listed result is the Live/Dead review, below, which wasn’t published until February 1970, almost a whole year later. Fortunately the review is included in The Rolling Stone Record Review, but not in the “Review As Fiction” section; instead, it’s buried in the “Los Angeles, Southern California, and Other Extremities” section. The mass market paperback equivalent of an Easter Egg, I guess. But if this truly was Young’s first story for the magazine, he came in with a bang – it’s a crazy tale about a proto-punk kid who takes speed, berates his mother for her old-fashioned music tastes, beats her up, then pranks her with the gift of a new record, the joke being that the G.T.O.s were an all-female group (“Girls Together Outrageously”) under the direction of Frank Zappa, and their LP was all about screwing famous rock stars. This one’s weird and wild.

Ten Years After, Ssssh (11/1/69)* – This is another one that doesn’t appear in the “Contributor” filter under “J.R. Young” in the Cover To Cover CD-ROM, it but does appear in The Rolling Stone Record Review. Anyway, the tale introduces us to the “Very Wise Kid,” a teenager who is shopping in an antique store for an instrument – anything other than a guitar. As he explains to the kindly old proprietor, it’s all been done with the guitar, and there’s nothing someone else couldn’t do “ten years after” the Kid himself has done it. This phrase puts him on the topic of Ten Years After, in particular their new LP, Ssssh, which the Kid says is a new sort of thing; indeed, “I think perhaps Alvin Lee is God.” He then leaves the store, going out to preach the Word to others, fated to return in another Ten Years After review.

The Grateful Dead, Live/Dead (2/7/70)* – This is the earliest listed entry when you sort by “J.R. Young” in the Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM, which makes me wonder if there are even more Young reviews before it that just didn’t get tagged – if I ever get a lot of free time, it might be worth hunting through the review section of each issue to find out. The fact that the Permanent Damage and Ssssh reviews don’t come up in the results makes me suspect that there might be more Young stories that just didn’t get tagged by the CD-ROM creators.

Anyway, According to The Rolling Stone Record Review, this was Young’s most popular story, and I saw one online claim that some editions of this album came with a slip proclaiming, “Put on the Dead and spread!” This memorable tagline features throughout the story, which is a short one about a trio of young girls named Marsha, Starglow, and Sheila, who when we meet them are “four joints to the cosmos” on “very potent dope.” Sheila’s telling the other two about her latest boyfriend, Real George, who every day after work likes to come home and immediately “ball,” screaming “Put on the Dead, and spread!” This is because, “Real George likes nothing better than to fuck to the Grateful Dead.” Soon enough this very thing happens, Real George ripping off his clothes as he tears into the house, bellowing, “Put on the Dead, and spread, ‘cause I’m loaded and ready to go!” Sheila sheds her own clothes (“She was naked in a jiffy”), puts on a tape of Live/Dead, then rushes into the bedroom with him. The story is goofy and has that fuzzy-freaky vibe I love so much, but it’s pretty short and it’s mostly centered around the tagline, which is repeated several times.

The Guess Who, American Woman (3/7/70) – “Teddy had spent the warm January afternoon at Sugar Marlow’s place rolling finger-sized joints out back in the rec room where Sugar’s dad sometimes played pool and had executive parties.” With yet another effective opening line J.R. Young brings us into the world of Teddy, a dopesmoking Long Beach “blues freak” teen who likes to get ripped and play all the latest heavy blues stuff with his buddy on his KLH portable (a turntable Young mentions a few times in his stories, leading me to believe it’s the one he himself perhaps used). When Teddy goes home and finds his kid sister and her “weird fuckin’ cunt” of a friend listening to the usual “bubble gum” type music, he pokes fun at her for listening to such shit. But the joke’s on Teddy, because they’re playing The Guess Who, and the music gets stuck in his head, and that night he slips into his sister’s room and borrows the LP – lighting another fat joint as “the half-gram [turntable] arm drop[s] onto the album.”

B.B. King, The Thrill Is Gone (4/2/70)* – One of Young’s very best stories, and you often find it mentioned by those who remember his work. Opening with an explanation that it’s inspired by the recent B.B. King single, this wonderful little short story, so good that it should’ve gotten out of the rock magazine world and into a “Best Short Stories of 1970” anthology, concerns a guy named Bud as he drives through rural Oregon, reflecting on how he used to make the same run with his frat brother Phil back in ’64. Phil was a “card” who was known for telling tall tales; in particular he once told Bud a good one about how Phil was driving through a desolate area just like this and his radio picked up an actual broadcast from 1949, like a beam from the past. Phil’s theory was that, since sound travels as waves, it only stood to reason that at some point the waves pass outside of human comprehension but are still out there, and somehow his car radio just picked that particular wave up. But then Phil always was talking about strange shit, as we see in this ultra-weird aside:

Phil once told Bud that someone had pictures, almost a film, of Christ on Calvary. The pictures had been discovered buried, wrapped in a parchment tube. What it was, so Phil’s story went, was a series of rabbit retinas. Someone had lined up a row of rabbits facing the cross and then chopped their heads off in quick succession. The final retinal imprint was somehow made permanent in each eye, and thus, when all the retinas were lined up, there was a pictorial study of Calvary. The story had bothered Bud for a long time.

I love that this little story is buried within the main story, and it’s an indication that by this point Jann Wenner (or whoever edited the reviews section) was letting Young do whatever he wanted. But anyway here Bud is driving on the same stretch of road, almost ten years later, and he turns on the radio, and he hears this ghostly voice coming over the waves. The song sounds old and antiquated, the signal is weak and fading fast, and Bud wonders if he is experiencing the same thing that Phil did all those years ago. That here is another of those old sound beams experiencing a “pause in its second stellar flight.” But the signal’s fading away and Bud cranks it up – only to be blasted almost out of his seat by Wolfman Jack, announcing that he just played B.B. King’s latest single, “The Thrill Is Gone.” This is an effective little piece, alternately poignant and eerie, and very memorable.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Déjà Vu (4/30/70)* – I’d say this one is Young’s masterpiece, if for no other reason than it’s a full-fledged short story, taking up 5 ½ double-columned pages in The Rolling Stone Record Review. The intro to “The Review As Fiction” states that this story “almost found itself onto the Big Screen, and is known to have frightened ‘hip’ record store owners from Secaucus to Sacramento.” This is because the crux of the story revolves around a small group of dopesmoking would-be terrorists who are radicalized by the real thing – a Weather Underground type who moves into the complex they all share in Eugene, Oregon and who ultimately gets them to blow up a record store. As ever Young brings the whole fuzzy-freaky era to life, with its fuzzy-freaky characters; in addition to Dave, who works in a record store and designs his own bomb blueprints, we have:

[Dave’s] old lady was something else, too, because her scene, as she so candidly admitted, was a “mixed bag,” anything from “politico-revolutionary theatre” to blue ribbon winner at the Lane County Fair for her apricot conserve. She said “Sorry ‘bout that” more than three times a day, and talked on endlessly about good karma. 

Clipper, the cat who lived next door to them, thought “her act was nowhere” privately, although he still would have loved to ball her. He was an older cat, and presumed he was terrifically sexual, and was into all kinds of “villes,” such as “I’m in Turned-onsville,” or “He’s from Hostilesville.” He had a freaky girlfriend who always wore a peasant blouse and jiggled her tits on purpose. 

“Nipplesville,” Clipper often laughed as he made a grab for the big ones. 

They were all heavy record freaks and well into dope, always dropping “pure Owsley” and tripping at the beach, stashing joints, and things like that, and always to the big beat of the sounds that Dave brought home from the record store. Music and dope went hand in hand in their households – whether fucking in the shower, eating dinner, talking revolution, reading Mao, answering the door, whatever, they were wacked.

Into this fold comes the mysterious Jordan Rover (hmmm…“J.R.”), who moves into their complex and keeps to himself. He seems to be on the run and the others try to bring him into their fold to find out about him. But he refuses their friendship and even, believe it or not, their dope. Instead he rails at them for their laziness, how all they do is talk about revolution, while their energy is really devoted to the next big record that comes out. As far as Jordan’s concerned, they all should hope that CSNY’s upcoming album – which is so hotly anticipated that it will come off like an atom bomb in the current blasé rock scene – turns out to be bad. That way they can channel that energy back into fighting in the streets and causing societal upheaval.

I wonder if this is yet more commentary buried within the story, as this particular issue of Rolling Stone carried a separate review of Déjà Vu, ie a “real” review, and it was very negative, bitching about how polished it sounded and etc. But anyway our heroes get serious about all that hippie-terrorizing and before you know it Dave’s blown up the record store he works in – after closing hours, when no one’s there, fortunately. The group is so radicalized that they don’t even realize Déjà Vu has finally come out – they’ve tossed out all their albums and their apartments are now spartanly-furnished centers from which they plan more guerrilla warfare. Then one night they hear some good music coming from down the hall – and there’s Jordan Rover, naked and smashed on a fat joint, blasting Déjà Vu on a portable KLH turntable.

Ten Years After, Cricklewood Green (6/11/70)* – A sequel to the Ssssh review, this one’s framed as an interview with the Very Wise Kid himself. The unnamed reviewer, who claims to have read that earlier review and realized at once that the “Kid” was “a very old and dear friend” he knew back in Junior High, three years ago(!), decides to track the Kid down and ask him if he really thinks Alvin Lee is God. The Very Wise Kid defends his claim, but does admit that the new Ten Years After album Cricklewood Green isn’t as good, and comes off like Alvin Lee searching for a top ten hit. This one ranges everywhere from comparing the new record to Chinese food to claiming “Sometimes even God shows off” when it’s argued that Lee’s guitar playing is unnecessarily fast. It occurred to me that this review is likely a parody of the long, often pretentious interviews Rolling Stone was known for, with rock stars elaborting at length on all and sundry topics and the interviewers asking long, probing questions; the tone and style are the same here, though of course it’s done in a fraction of the space. 

Various Artists, Woodstock (7/9/70)* – Per the intro to “The Review As Fiction” in The Rolling Stone Record Review, this and the Déjà Vu review are Young’s two “masterpieces.” I like some of the others better than this one, but it is an effective tale, basically an indictment against the hipsterism that was already rearing its head in the hippie underground. For once we move out of Oregon: it’s Pittsburgh, PA, where we meet 18 year-old Bill, who was “too drunk” to drive over to Woodstock when the festival was going on. But he got bitten by the Woodstock bug afterward, and has become a walking encyclopedia of everything that happened there – he knows the album by heart, has seen the movie multiple times (even getting some of the fabled “brown acid” so he could experience bad vibes during his second viewing), and further has started to lie that he was at Woodstock.

Such is Dave’s fame that others on campus now come to him with Woodstock questions – like at the party in which the story takes pace, where a girl asks if it’s true everyone was naked, “like cocks and cunts and all that.” (Always throws me for a loop how profane Rolling Stone could get in its early days!) But there’s another kid at the party, someone new on campus, memorably described as “a hairy ragamuffin of hipdom,” and he’s sitting there listening to Bill with a strange look on his face. Of course, this kid was really at Woodstock, and with just a few simple questions he outs Bill as a liar. But it’s not a good victory for this kid, as he himself is later shamed by a “girl” (Young has a habit of never naming his female characters), who tells him, “You are Woodstock Nation, and if it’s come down to this, then that’s sad. That’s why there will never really be a Woodstock Nation. You won’t let anybody live on your land.”

Free, Free (7/23/70) – “Our number one rave record reviewer” gets the new Free album in his latest batch of LPs to review, and takes it home where it becomes the butt of a few lame “Is that so and so?” jokes. It seems that with this review Young was attempting to meld his short fiction approach with a regular sort of review, so that we understand Free is imitative of more famous acts, and not very good at all, but it’s relayed in the format of a short story. It doesn’t really work as well as the straight-up stories, though.

Neil Young, After The Gold Rush (10/15/70) – Young’s last major piece of fiction is one of his best, and surely the only reason it wasn’t included in The Rolling Stone Record Review was because it was submitted too late for inclusion; otherwise this one is a masterful character study that surpasses the poignance of the B.B. King review. I was really caught up in it, and it’s nearly as long as the Déjà Vu review. It’s about young Steven, a “good boy,” who has only recently decided to look into rock music; he owns a mere two records, both by Neil Young, whose voice he likes. But Steven is more into sitting on his bed every night in total silence and straining to hear his father in the den beneath him; Steven’s nights are filled with the sounds of the den’s TV, from the Carson show to the late movie, until he finally drifts off to sleep. But his father never makes a sound down there, sitting in total silence, and when Steven asks him about “that movie last night,” his dad just shrugs.

The story is very much the antithesis of the Permanent Damage review, as it’s about a son desperate for his father’s attention and love. The two never talk, but every night Steven goes to bed earlier and earlier, just so he can sit in silence in his bedroom and listen for the sound of his father down in the den. It goes on for a while – and despite the lack of anything “happening” it’s more enthralling than many thrillers I’ve read, such is the power of Young’s prose and characterization. Finally it comes to a head, and late one night Steven’s dad abruptly switches off the TV and yells for Steven, saying he knows he’s up there.

Father and son bond in an all-night session of laughing and talking, and all seems well, even on into breakfast the next day. But when Steven asks his dad about “all those movies” he used to watch in the den, his dad bottles up again and that’s all she wrote for the father-son bonding. That day Steven goes downtown all day and comes home with “Neil Young’s newest record,” and “he was with it for a long time afterwards.” Once again Young has delivered a tale that has no bearing on the actual record under “review,” but he’s managed to capture the desolation and alienation that is central to Neil Young’s work. This is a good story, another indication that J.R. Young should’ve been known beyond the Rolling Stone readership, but it was the last such story he was to contribute.

“A Tale Of Christmas Present” (1/7/71) – Young’s last piece of fiction (at least according to the Cover To Cover CD-ROM) isn’t even a review – I mean, even less of one than his other “reviews” were – but it is buried in the “Reviews” section of this issue. It tells the Yuletide tale of two 14-year-old kids getting ripped on dope and shoplifting at the local mall: “Sammy Snapper and his lamb, Cynthia Swellhead, that lovely little liberated libido herself, had arrived after three at the Valley Creek Shopping Center, and by three-thirty had declared it was theirs for the asking.” The short tale has the duo hitting the discount record store, where Cynthia does her thieving in the Opera section. A “house dick” disguised as Santa nearly catches her, but Cynthia knees him and the two make their escape, after which Cynthia figures she might stop stealing. It’s a fun story, with that same fuzzy-freaky vibe, and I wonder if it was written as a “review” for one of the records mentioned in Cynthia’s stealing spree but just excised and put here on its own.

And with this short tale Young’s fiction contributions ended; unless as mentioned there are indeed more Young stories that just aren’t populating in the Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM search results due to some technical snafu. Young did contribute the occasional review and feature to the magazine until December ’73, but after a feature piece on a “Singing Cowboy” he dropped out – and apparently vanished from the scene. The veritable D.B. Cooper of rock journalism. As stated above, it’s possible he did more short story-style reviews for Creem, but I have no confirmation. It’s a shame Young didn’t branch out into fiction, as juding from the tone and quality of these stories he could’ve written the novel of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s counterculture, or at least a pretty damn cool paperback cash-in of it.

8 comments:

Unknown said...

Helluva find. Wonder if Young associated with Ken Kesey up Oregon way? Wonder if his doper protagonists later did a 180-degree turn in life and are now sleazy investment and trust fund grandparents and Trump fans? 1969-1971 corresponded to my first three years in college. I didn't start reading Rolling Stone till 1972, more for the film reviews than the music stuff.

allan said...

Fascinating stuff.

nealumphred said...

JOE

Thanks for the article!

I bought each issue of Rolling Stone as it came out starting with #1. While I enjoyed lots of the reviews, anything J.R. Young wrote was usually the highlight of the issue in which it appeared. I was also a big fan of John Mendelsohn's reviews—his take on the second Led Zeppelin album is stuck in my head forever. ("Jimmy Page is the absolute number-one heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’4″ and 5’8″ in the world!")

Keep on keepin' on!

NEAL

PS: Why don't you don't have a subscription option to your blog?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Neal! It's great to hear from someone who was a fan of Young's back in the day. I forgot to update my review, but I did get a chance to re-scan the "Cover To Cover" CD-Rom, and can confirm that the stories listed above are the only short stories Young wrote for Rolling Stone. All his other stuff was either reports or "standard" album reviews.

I also like Mendelsohn...ironic you should mention him, as I just got out my copy of "The Kinks Kronikles," which I bought 20+ years ago and only played once(!). I see that Mendelsohn wrote the liner notes and sort of put the album together.

I've never thought of a subscription option -- I'll look into it!

nealumphred said...

JOE

There are two volumes of THE ROLLING STONE RECORD REVIEW published in the early '70s by Pocket Books that are still fun and even insightful decades let:

https://www.amazon.com/Rolling-Stone-Record-Review/dp/0671785311

https://www.amazon.com/Rolling-Stone-Record-Review-II/dp/B000JKH8E2

I bought THE KINK KRONIKLES the day it was released. Many of the singles on that album were already impossible to find (and in the early 1970s, there were very few places to buy old, used, or collectable records in the US outside of a few major cities).

Keep on keepin' on!

NEAL

Orson Kerr said...

I bought that review compilation not long after it came out, and I still get it out once in a while to reread the JR Young pieces. Thanks for the reminder to do it again.

Mark Leviton said...

I have a piece in that book too -- in the section with the Mendelssohn Zep review. Check out my website www.petsoundsmusic.com for more about that. I met J R in 1974 when he worked at Capitol Records, visited him there a couple times. He was pushing Rupert Holmes' album Widescreen at the time, even though it was on Columbia -- he just loved it, and he gave me a copy. I think he was writing bios and doing publicity. My friend Todd Everett says he also worked at Elektra at one point. I lost track of him in the mid-seventies.

Joe Kenney said...

Hi Mark, thanks a lot for the comment! Awesome to hear you knew JR back in the day...and also that you have a piece in the Record Review. I'll check that out. I haven't read the entire thing. I'll also look for your entries in the Rolling Stone Cover to Cover CD-Rom -- it has every issue from the first one through 2007. It's awesome, but the proprietary software it runs on is so outdated I can only access it via my old, never-used laptop. Kind of wish they'd provide an update patch, but I figure since it was released back in 2007 they're not concerned about it.

That's funny to hear JR was into the Holmes album...ironically I was just looking at that one the other week, while shopping a seller's inventory on Discogs.com. I didn't end up getting it, though. Cool also that JR was at Captiol. That's one of my favorite labels -- I've found a lot of great, overlooked stuff on that label. In fact right now I'm playing Edward Bear's "Bearings," a Capitol LP from '69 I scored last week for $3. Pretty cool studio rock with a Beatles flavor and some super-cool psych rockers on side 2 ("Mind Police" and "Toe Jam"), but let down by some aimless blues numbers. I'd never heard of these guys, but apparently they were a group of Canadians who hit it big with a later LP, which went in more of a soft rock direction.

Sorry to run on so long. I'll check out your website, too!