talking with ken barnes on his career as a rock journalist

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation from a young musician in England to make a connection on the LinkedIn site, the “world’s largest professional network.” Reluctantly I accepted it, despite the fact that I have yet to meet anyone who has actually benefited professionally from any of their LinkedIn connections. Nonetheless, I certainly don’t know everyone on that network, so maybe I was missing something.

The Byrds hold a special place for me—first record I ever bought was the MR. TAMBOURINE MAN album.

I corresponded briefly with this Englishman through LinkedIn before we actually connected in a more meaningful manner (read about it here). The meeting of him and me inspired me to return to LinkedIn, where I reviewed hundreds of options for connecting with others with a similar professional background. I selected a number of individuals with professions connected to music or records and sent them invitations for “linking.” Several responded, including Mr. Ken Barnes.

I immediately emailed him and said that if he was who I thought he was then I remember reading his stuff in the early ’70s. I included a link to my Rather Rare Records site and an invitation to do an interview via email for that site. He accepted and this is what we came up with, me talking with Ken Barnes:

KB: I recognized your name from Goldmine magazine, which I have occasionally glanced at—probably not as often as I should have—in the past.

NU: The shame of Goldmine is that they can’t figure out how to do in a country of 316,000,000 what Record Collector and Mojo (among others) have done in a country of 53,000,000. The US should be supporting several magazines of quality writing and research about rock & roll and related music of our past and the collecting of every type of record! I’m not holding my breath waiting for that day . . .

KB: I agree wholeheartedly about the shameful state of music magazines in the US, but many have tried and no one seems to have the right combination to produce an American Mojo or Q or NME. Very sad.

I took a look at your Rather Rare Records site, and gravitated immediately to the Byrds. Read a couple of pieces, which I found absorbing. They have always been one of my core bands—in fact, I think we agree on several core artists. But the Byrds hold a special place for me—first record I ever bought was the MR. TAMBOURINE MAN album (wasn’t yet hip to 45s, or much of anything, for that matter).

First concert I ever went to was the (five original) Byrds in Sierra Madre, CA, and so forth. I was just holding forth on them in an interesting exchange with Sid Griffin, one of the world’s true Byrds scholars.

NU: I was raised on ’50s rock & roll and as much as I dug the British Invasion, it was Mr. Tambourine Man the single that woke me up to the possibilities of the form. That said, whenever I am listening to Turn! Turn! Turn! I feel that it is the single finest ‘pop art’ record ever made.

I believe that Sid and I have interacted in the past when I was selling records out of my house in California in the early ’80s, but neither of us is exactly sure.

KB: If you sold records in the ‘80s out of your house in L.A.—presuming it was L.A., since that’s where and when I met Sid (in addition to music, we played softball together a lot)—it’s odd that I never ran into you. Or maybe we did and didn’t know it.

NU: I lived in the other California: my ex and I rented a really old house in the middle of some really old vineyards in St. Helena. I ran full-page ads in Goldmine as Pet Sounds Records at 500 Tokay Lane and I believe that Sid contacted me looking for some Byrds records!

KB: I had family connections (by marriage) in Sonoma for a while, so I visited the area frequently. You must know Barry Wickham over in Petaluma.

NU: Barry’s name sounds really familiar, but I haven’t lived in California since 1981! Been up in the Pacific Northwest for more than a quarter of a century. Moved here in the ’80s when I realized that the times they were a-changing for the world’s climate, and that water could become a precious commodity. The only place in the US where that should not be a problem for the foreseeable future is right here.

KB: Not sure how long he’s been up in Petaluma, but Barry Wickham is one of the world’s leading ‘60s collectors (and beyond and before) and dealers, and coauthor of the invaluable Garage Records Price And Reference Guide. You might have heard of him in Goldmine circles. 1

Barnes on Barnes

Before we go any further, I asked Ken to send me a few words on himself for readers unfamiliar with his name or work. Find here the skimpiest (and most modest) of outlines of a career that started in 1971, even before the events in the movie Almost Famous took place (the almost-true story of an even younger rock journalist in the ’70s):

Lifelong music and radio fan.

In short-lived garage band that only emerged once from the garage.

In 1971, finally managed to turn obsession into profession when early rock mags Phonograph Record and Fusion accepted unsolicited reviews that I sent them.

PhonographRec

The late Phonograph Record Magazine during the brief heyday of rock music publications, essentially the early ’70s. As a competitor to Rolling Stone, Creem, and Crawdaddy, it was edited by founder Marty Cerf, Greg Shaw, and Ken Barnes during its run (1970-78). Contributors included such luminaries as Lester Bangs, Mitchell Cohen, John Mendelsohn, Mike Saunders, and Bud Scoppa.

Later in ’71, I helped collate an issue of the Who Put the Bomp fanzine and struck up a strong relationship with editor Greg Shaw

WhoPutBomp

I think that I was briefly a subscriber to WPTB; if so, the issue above from the summer of ’71 was the first issue that I received. If I remember correctly (ho ho ho), there was a piece on the unreleased Kinks album Four More Respected Gentlemen. And the editor was gaga about something he called ‘power pop’ and Eric Carmen’s group the Raspberries.

In 1973, became co-editor of Bomp and also started writing for Rolling Stone and went on staff as assistant editor at Phonograph Record that year.

In 1975, joined trade publication Radio & Records, eventually rose to Senior VP and Editor, freelancing sporadically all the while (notably New York Rocker and CREEM singles columns).

In 1976, published The Beach Boys: A Biography in Words & Pictures, a 54-page book with oversized pages that cost $4.95 and was really just an overblown career review. It was published by Sire-Chappell, a short-lived branch of the music publishing company Chappell, as part of series of six books, which may not have all been published.

Barnes_BeachBoysBook

The Beach Boys: A Biography In Words & Pictures by Ken Barnes was one of the first rock biographies and a book that we fans cherished at the time as it recognized the group’s status at a difficult time—the “Brian is back” campaign that would prove a disaster within the year.

In 1994, worked at ICE as editor.

In 1995, worked at Microsoft’s Music Central website as editor.

In 1998, became USA Today’s music editor.

Quasi-retired since 2008.

 

After editing the back-and-forth between us, I sent the results to Ken with a request to alter some of his text (for stylistic continuity’s sake) and for him to return my draft with more conversation of his choosing. During our emailing we discovered that we were neighbors (we live less than hour apart) and we were both avid readers. Needless to say, books and authors came up:

NU: One of my favorite writers is Norman Spinrad and as awesome as his experimentation with psychedelically-inspired, stream-of-altered-consciousness narration was in the ’60s, it’s sort of distracting when I read it now.

KB: Big Norman Spinrad fan myself, probably starting with Bug Jack Barron, and continuing through the wishful-thinking classic Russian Spring and many more. But yeah, anybody’s “psychedelically inspired, stream-of-altered-consciousness” experiments wear quickly on the reader these days.

NU: I bought Bug Jack Barron off the spin-rack in ’69 where I worked (first job outta high school) and have been a BIG fan since. If you haven’t been reading him since Russian Spring (the first Spinrad book that I suggest people read who have never read Spinrad), there have been some gems! The latest being He Walked Among Us. A personal fave is Passing Through The Flame!

Spinrad_BJB(pb)

This is the cover of Bug Jack Barron (first Avon paperback edition) that caught my attention in the spinner at Leo Matus’s store where I worked in 1969. I was branching out from the traditional science-fiction that was available from the Hoyt Library and broadening my horizons after reading Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology.

Spinrad_BJB(hb) 

This is the first hardbound edition of Bug Jack Barron (Walker & Company, 1969) that I ordered at Mrs. Matus’s Book & Card Mart after being bowled over by reading the paperback. I hunted down Spinrad’s other books and have remained a loyal reader ever since. I know that this has little to do with the gist of this conversation but I enjoy plugging this author’s books whenever possible.

KB: Did you know that one of the finest early rock critics grew up in St. Helena? Gene Sculatti, who first wrote for Mojo Navigator (the mid-sixties mimeographed sheet that Greg Shaw got his start on), and later wrote for countless publications, not to mention a lengthy Billboard career, was born and raised there.

NU: I am familiar with Gene’s name—was it in Rolling Stone? He had a couple of picture books out on the San Francisco music scene way back when, yes?

KB: Gene never wrote for Rolling Stone, to my knowledge, but did write for nearly every other mag. He has a book on the SF scene out, and also edited two perceptive and hilarious anthologies, The Catalog Of Cool and Two Cool, plus an ongoing Luxuria Internet Radio show called Atomic Cocktail.

SummerOfLove_1

In our conversation above, I was confusing Gene Sculatti with Gene Anthony and his two Summer Of Love books (1980 top and 1995 bottom).

SummerOfLove_2

NU: Remember how teenybop magazines 16 and Tiger Beat used to mix up the serious with the inane in their interviews with pop stars?

KB: Not nearly enough of the serious. Hit Parader though—which I believed at the time was a cheesy vehicle to print lyrics—turns out to have been probably the first serious rock mag, from at least 1965 (and probably earlier) on. Wish I’d followed it more closely.

NU: Even Hit Parader asked things like a rock star’s favorite color, what he liked in a girl, etc. Try this: what influence do you think your records have on young listeners?

KB: My records generally stay on their shelves, and thus have little opportunity to influence impressionable young listeners. Or have I misunderstood this question?

NU: Sort of—I am just asking the teenybop questions of you. So, Ken, what singer influenced you the most?

KB: In terms of pure voice, probably Sam Cooke.

NU: What instruments do you play?

KB: Rudimentary guitar.

NU: How old are you?

KB: Quite. (You can probably deduce from some of the above chronology.)

NU: Enough of that. I agree that Hit Parader was ahead of its time, especially their capsule record reviews. They gave SMILEY SMILE a rave review! That’s an album I hated (like everyone else in ’67) but it became one an all-time fave when I first heard it tripping. They also praised the Rascals’ wonderful and apparently forgotten GROOVIN’ album.

HitParader_06:67

A typical garishly colorful cover of Hit Parader, this is cover dated June 1967, which means it was probably written and assembled in January-February. The featured artists include the Beatles, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Hollies, Tom Jones, The Blues Magoos, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the Rascals, the Rolling Stones, and the Animals.

NU: So, Mr. Barnes, do you actively collect records versus simply accumulating them?

My collecting interests are broad enough now that a pretty wide timespan and variety of styles will rate a purchase.

KB: Not sure what that means, precisely, since you generally have to actively acquire records in order to accumulate them. (Unless you have some sort of vinyl magnet that draws them in effortlessly.) If you mean is there a design involved in the records I acquire, well, sort of.

My collecting interests are broad enough now that a pretty wide timespan and variety of styles will rate a purchase, if the price is right. Actually, in some of my previous gigs, I did tend to accumulate records without effort, receiving promotional copies of a large number of releases from the early ‘70s into the 2000s. I miss that. 2

NU: Your second paragraph is a good enough definition. As someone who caters to the interests and needs of “serious” record collectors, I differentiate collectors and mere accumulators. The former almost always have a “design”—which implies a goal—and once caught up in it, spend time, energy, and money realizing it.

These are the people who spend years searching for a copy of The Long And Winding Road picture sleeve without any record indentation and then gleefully tell their friends that they paid twice book value and gloat when their friend’s admit that they have never seen a copy of that sleeve in that condition before!

Accumulators are those folk—and I want to say “guys” because it is mostly guys but there seem to be more and more younger females involved, which is great—who find every garage sale, thrift shop, and flea market within driving range of their house or apartment and buy whatever seems like a great buy—usually paying a buck or less.

They own thousands of albums, all arranged by artist, but defined by no parameters other than how little they paid for them. They usually are the ones who brag about how they got such-and-such a record “that books for $300” for a dollar! That they don’t like the artist or the music is irrelevant. That it doesn’t fill a hole in their collection nor will they ever search for another record by that artist is meaningless.

The passion with which some people pursue their collections can seem like religious fervor.

Of course, almost all collectors began as accumulators; some evolved, some did not. And I am not picking on anyone for being an accumulator; Grommett only knows that finding valuable records for cents-on-the-dollar is a joyful experience! I am just remarking about the differences between the two critters.

On the other hand, it is not difficult to argue that serious collectors of anything/everything exhibit symptoms somewhat similar to OCD and other unwellnesses and I have said in the past that for many collectors their passion is more like an affliction than a hobby that is supposed to bring joy and relieve stress.

Those words are not intended to be condescending: the passion with which some people pursue their collections resembles obsession and can seem like anything from religious fervor to outright lunacy to a non-collector. Any male record or comic book collector who has had a “normal” girlfriend and brought her to a convention has had to explain behavior that sometimes requires resorting to pop-psychology to explain things that he has more or less taken for granted for decades.

 

Too many years ago, I had a teacher who discussed some of the habits that successful writers used to keep the ball rolling and avoid writer’s block. (Did I just use a sports metaphor?) One author—and I am remembering Hemingway—would end his writing mid-sentence, in a spot where he knew what was coming next. That way he could pick up the next day with the ball in play! (Did it again!)

So it is with this conversation: I asked Ken a question about psychedelic music, he answered (“it’s one of my strongest areas of interest”), but we both agreed that it was a topic that required more attention. So we decided to cut off this part of the chat and leave that part for the next time. I have one question regarding psychedelia and 65 words from Ken to begin part 2 of this conversation . . .


Footnotes:

1   I contacted Mr. Wickham via Facebook and he assured me that we knew one another! And once I recognized the name, the face and enjoyable personality that went with it returned. I had simply forgot the name because it had been so long. So he and I renewed our acquaintance and all is well in the world for the time being.

2   Regarding being a critic and receiving all those free records: I remember buying Robert Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums Of The Seventies in 1981 and had two huge responses to it. The first was the brutality of his initial passing/accepting of those albums he received and knew little about and the grading structure that followed, and his dismissal of so many ‘60s albums. I came to understand the former but never understood his preference for ‘70s and later rock over the ‘60s—especially given the fact that he was older than I was.

 

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