Arts & Culture

Mike Edison: Rock n’ Roll Liner Notes as Art

As I was preparing my introduction to the interview below, an e-mail popped into my inbox for the upcoming Literary Death Match, featuring the same person I had just finished interviewing.  I wasn’t really surprised– it’s no less than Mike Edison, … Read More

By / May 6, 2010

As I was preparing my introduction to the interview below, an e-mail popped into my inbox for the upcoming Literary Death Match, featuring the same person I had just finished interviewing.  I wasn’t really surprised– it’s no less than Mike Edison, the guy L.D.M described as the "King of Counterculture", author of I Have Fun Everywhere I Go, a holy book for those who want to live the rock n’ roll lifestyle.  If that wasn’t enough, he’s also the guy that gets to write the liner notes for some of the best albums of all time.  Fine, crown him a king, but we feel more appropriate calling the guy the Chief Rabbi of Rock n’ Roll Literature, since he’s the one to put his name on albums including the (reissued) first LP by The Stooges, re-issued Ramones CDs, the occasional New York Dolls press bio, and most recently seven new CDs from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, beginning with Dirty Shirt Rock’n'Roll – The First Ten Years,  and including all of their classic discs. When you’re writing the liner notes for an iconic band like The Stooges or the  Ramones, what’s the first thing you do to prepare yourself? The first thing to do, no matter what record it is, is clear your mind and give the record a close listen, maybe even a few spins. You might think you know it front to back, but you are not normally tuned in so tightly, generally that’s not how you listen. I keep my notebook open and write down whatever comes to mind. Some of it is very impressionistic, just stream of consciousness – whatever comes into my mind -lawnmowers, chickens, French maids, cocaine holidays, you know, "Chance favors the prepared mind." But also specific notes on the mix, or the lyrics, or the vibe, anything evocative that I can wrap some notes around.

Generally I like to keep myself out of the picture, but every once in a while I tell something about my relationship with the record, like Controversial Negro, the Jon Spencer live record. I remember being so happy to have scored a copy when it first came out fifteen years ago – originally it was a very limited promo item, practically a bootleg. I  got home and plopped it on the turntable and was shocked, I mean really appalled, at how fucking awful it sounded. Then I realized it wasn’t the record – it was me! I wasn’t playing it loud enough. The way the record is mixed you have to play it at overpowering volume to get the desired effect. That story, which is absolutely true, pretty much set the tone for everything else I wrote about that record. It’s a great record but it needs to be jacked jet-engine fucking loud.  It must have been a lot of pressure writing liner notes for a Stooges record. Yeah, but what a cool gig, right? And a lot of responsibility. Seriously. The Stooges are everyones favorite band, and this an important record to a lot of people, including me. It’s a challenge because the story has been told so many times. "The Stooges were the first punk band, Iggy is the Godfather of punk, blah blah." If only it were so simple. The truth is that the Stooges, at least at the time of their first record, were tremendously exciting, but also borderline incompetent. They were completely original – save for the obvious Jagger, Morrision and Sinatra influences – but they weren’t really at the vanguard of anything. And yet they produced this incredible work of art. But you can’t be too precious about it, I mean, it’s the fucking Stooges, for chrissake. Nor can you just come out and say that the first song on side two is a pretentious, boring piece of shit, even if it is true, because you can bet the record company will have something to say about it. 

The Stooges are something of a miracle, actually. I described their career as having "the same dramatic arc as a head of steer in an abattoir." And yet thirty years later they get interred in to the Rock and Roll Mall of Fame, co-opted by the same industry assholes who hated them in the first place, everything that the Stooges stood against. It’s kind of like Bloomingdales bringing out  a punk fashion line for the spring – they’ll kill it just as soon as it is no longer of use to them. Can’t really say that, either. Hasn’t everything there is to say about the Ramones already been said?

NO! Because you haven’t heard what I have to say! One advantage I have is that I am a musician – I play drums, piano, guitar, and have been touring in various punk rock and blues bands of varying degrees of sleaziness most of my adult life, have made a dozen or so records – so I have an understanding of the process that most music journalists, or listeners, do not. Not everyone will understand how cool an old-school echo chamber or a Trident mixing board is, or the vagaries of Joe Meek-style tube compression, or the Afro-Cuban roots of Bo Diddley, but my goal is to never write down to anyone, I want the reader to come up to me. I want them to feel like, Hey, I read these notes and there was a real payoff, they were a gas to read, it wasn’t the usual huffing and puffing,  and now I understand this record better -  the music, whatever historical importance it might have, how the damn thing got made. I always color outside of the lines and try to offer new insights. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to smoke a joint when I am scribbling in my notebook on the first close listen, but believe me, I have no shortage of ideas when it comes to spewing about rock’n'roll. Or jazz or classical, for that matter. At the end of the day it’s all just a bunch of noise, it’s just organized differently, and interesting things always emerge if you are able to get past the received wisdom and your pre-conceived notions, even if you have heard it a thousand times.

How is it working with Jon Spencer and the Blues Explosion?  Jon is very specific  about what he wants – there is a lot of journalsim involved, talking to everyone who worked one each record – engineers, special guests, record company people,  and of course multiple interviews with the band. We’re telling a very complete story. But it comes through my voice, which can be almost as loud as the records, ha ha… I try.  I love Jon, we’ve been friends for a long time, and I am not being the least bit obsequious when I say that the Blues Explosion is pretty much my favorite band, at least of the last twenty years. Jon and I have collaborated on a few things – most recently he produced the companion CD to my book I Have Fun Everywhere I GO – and I’ve been writing press releases and propaganda for him and the Blues Explosion for yonks. I have a lot of insight into how he works, which helps. Jon is an important American artist and I don’t mind being a cheerleader for him, he deserves to be on top of the heap.
Do you have any particular liner notes you’ve read that have blown your mind? Bob Dylan Highway 61, but that’s just a lot of Bob gibberish. A lot of records from the 50s and 60s have really great, goofy copy talking about what a swell bunch of fellows the band is. On one of the Sonic’s albums the drummer is described as having the "space-plus-beat and a smile to match." I love that. If you could have your choice of three more albums that you’d like to write the notes for, what would they be? Maybe an Ornette Coleman record. I have some thoughts on him that I don’t think have ever been expressed that might make some people think twice. Or Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. That gets recorded every once in a while, someone should call me! But I would really have loved to do the other Stooges records. Fun House, Raw Power, and Metallic KO – the greatest live record EVER!!!