Back in the Near Dark Ages when LOM was in grad-school journalism, one of the things that stuck with me was a lecture on "the lunatic fringe." These are the people who call in to radio talk shows or send long, vitriolic letters to newspapers, magazines and blogs.
Negative reviews always bring out the lunatic fringe. Take, for instance, my recent review of David Serby's Honkytonk and Vine
Statistically speaking (or writing), the Houston Press
publishes positive reviews a good 95 percent of the time (that's 19 out of every 20, if you're math-challenged). Most of the comments we receive on those are also glowingly positive, and (I suspect) thrown our way either by friends of the artist or ardent admirers - people with some kind of personal relationship or emotional stake.
But throw out some negativity and the mud-slinging begins. Of course, it doesn't take a rocket surgeon to realize that most of the negative comments and highfalutin vitriol is also coming from the artist's friends and admirers.
Re: Serby, poster "Merle Owens" - the lunatic fringe seldom uses real names, preferring anonymity - was offended by what he perceives as my anti-California-ism:
"Note to Texas Music Writers: DO NOT put your too-trite, beat up, scuffed up Texas-is-better superiority all over your reviews. Ditto your attitude about California!"
I love California, but I - and, I believe, many Texans, particularly the lifelong variety - do find it somewhat plastic, phony and affected. (Can you say 'show biz?') We love Dwight Yoakam, but find his affinity for skin-tight leather pants to be a bit disturbing in a
honky-tonk star. The day I see Redd Volkaert and Earl Poole Ball in skin-tight leather, that's when I'm getting a pair.
But overall in Texas, the credo is let your singin' and pickin', not your outfit, do your talking.
Another poster, Beeville Boy (is Beavis a nickname derived from Beeville?), claims to remember "when music journalism was about music... but hey, what can you do... kids today."
Being 59 years old and having not had the benefits of a Beeville education, I don't quite get his point. I've re-read the Serby piece and it seems like I said I thought the lyrics weren't very good, his voice isn't very good, and the whole marketing side of the photos and all that froo-froo that is supposed to make us want to grab the CD from the shelf and hand someone $15 are exactly that, a badly disguised attempt to convince us this is must-have honky-tonk music.
Which I do not find it to be. Which is why I wrote that.
Beavis doesn't agree. He lets the world know he gave Serby's first album a "place of honor next to my Willie, Justin Trevino, Johnny Bush and Dale Watson albums, as well as a well-loved and time-worn copy of Honky Tonk Heroes
I've only got one thing to say to that: BLASPHEMY. Turn in your Texas citizenship papers and call the moving van. Los Angeles will surely suit you well. Be sure and buy your leather pants here, though - they'll be cheaper.
A third poster, Brit Americana Fan, really got his knickers in a bunch about the review:
"I really don't see anything to pick on here, and when I listen to a honky-tonk record I'm not exactly expecting William Blake or for that matter, free-form Dylanesque prose. By the way, anyone take a good hard look at the lyrics to 'It Ain't Me Babe' lately? Not exactly
earth-shattering stuff, just a nice little honky-tonk tune if we're being honest.
"I love the cleverness in Willie Nelson's 'Hello Walls' as much as the next fellow but I'm just as happy listening to the sort of quaint and simple lyrics in the trite classic 'Heartaches by the Number.' If Mr. Smith writes honky-tonk songs, and God I hope he doesn't, I'd be willing to bet good money they are just as tedious and self-serving as his reviews are."
Where to start? I must be dense, but I don't get the "self-serving" angle. Why is a negative review self-serving, but if I'd said Serby was the next Hank Williams it wouldn't be? Maybe Beeville Beavis will clue me in.
Brit Man offers "the trite classic 'Heartaches By The Number.'" Dear Brit Man: it may seem trite now, but it was hardly trite when it was written 40 years ago. Serby's were trite at birth and will be 'til Hell freezes over.
And "It Ain't Me Babe" is a just a nice little honky-tonk tune? It may come as news, but there is a difference between pithy brilliance and copycat imitation. Serby's rhymes are not pithy nor are they particularly insightful.
When Bob Dylan wrote "It Ain't Me Babe," no one had ever heard a "simple honky-tonk song" done this way, which is why Johnny Cash, Steve Young and hundreds of lesser-known artists have covered it. Get back to me when Willie or Merle start covering Serby the way Dwight covered Mike Stinson's "Late Great Golden State."
As we've noted in these pages before, BAF, Beavis and Merle O., if you're looking for positive reviews about mediocrities posing as the next Big Thing, may LOM suggest you avail yourself of the free copies of Best in Texas
magazine lying in racks all over town.
Ed. Note: for further insight into the phenomenon of reader comments, see this article from last Sunday's New York Times Magazine