Thursday, October 15, 2015

30 Questions I’ve Always Wanted to Ask JOHN MENDELSSOHN: Big Star Fanzine Reprint [1977]

Text by Bernie Kugel / Big Star fanzine, 1977
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

This interview was originally printed in Big Star fanzine, issue #2, dated August-September-October 1977. It was written by its publisher, Buffalo (NY) Musician Hall of Fame Inductee Bernie Kugel, who kindly and granted permission for this reprint.

John Mendelssohn  is a well-known and respect music and culture critic. At the time of this article, he was gaining name for both is snarky and funny album reviews, and for his two bands, Christopher Milk and then The Pits. He also released some solo recordings, such as Sorry We’re Open (2010) with pop sounds that belied a history of insecurity and depression (as most writers will attest to about themselves). He often writes about that history now, which is quite evident in this interview.

Over time, as the recordings dwindled, he focused more on his writing, including a number of non-fiction books (such as the much lauded Kinks Kronikles and Waiting for Kate Bush) and a blog. He has made some serious moves over the years, living in such diverse areas as SoCal, England, Germany and Upstate New York, some of which revolved around marriages.

Like Lester Bangs, who was arguably better known, Mendelssohn’s contribution to rock writing cannot be underplayed, as he was part of a voice in the very late ‘sixties and well into the ‘seventies, helping create a form of creative non-fiction that influences the way people discuss the entertainment world at large even today.

Click on these links to check out his informative and fun BLOG called Mendel Illness, WRITING SAMPLES from his earlier days, some of his MUSIC, FICTION, and VIDEO AND MOTION GRAPHICS.

Two things to note are that Mendelsson also has been known to spell is name with a single “s” so don’t let that mislead  you, and that anything in [brackets] was added by me in 2015. – RBF, 2015
Christopher Milk publicity shot: John is second from right

John Mendelssohn’s been making unique, personal, great pop music for some years now with only some of the best of it surfacing on records like his old band Christopher Milk’s great Some People Will Drink Anything [Reprise Records, 1972 – RBF, 2015] LP and his new band the Fits’ fine debut EP on Bomp! Records. But there are other fine John Mendelssohn compositions that have as yet not seen the light of day. Incredible stuff too, like the amazing “Bring Back the Sixties” and the simply majestic “Prepared to Love” among the hours of unreleased Mendelssohn songs.

We’ve been very fortunate to be in contact with John the past few months, and he’s been kind enough to send along some of his unreleased tapes which will be covered in upcoming Big Stars in great detail. But for now, we thought we’d satisfy all you die-hard Mendelssohn freaks out there with this little by-mail exchange I had with him recently. But hang on, ‘cause there’s lots more Mendelssohn-Milt-Fits fax-n-pix comin’ your way soon. And remember, before you decide to move out west, Hollywood can be cruel. Now, Milk on…

1. Did you have aspirations for rock superstardom as a kid?
Up until the time I saw Hard Day’s Night, I dreamed not of rock stardom, but of a career as a professional baseball or basketball player, in spite of the fact that I never exactly excelled at either. (I was very small up until the age of seventeen, which had a little to do with it.)

2. What were your earliest attempts at bands like? What were your earliest original compositions like?
The Fogmen (Santa Monica High School, 1965), The Rubber Souls (winter, 1965) were both Beatles imitations in velour turtlenecks and Thom McCann boots. The Consouls (summer, 1965) was run by three older geezers and played soul music, very poorly. The 1930 Four played English stuff, jazz and a couple of Ray Charles things, and won the Battle of the Bands sponsored by the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce in 1966. I was thrown out in May 1967. My earliest compositions were lame imitations of my favorite records.

3. What were the early days of C. Milk like? How did the group come together?
Hectic, silly, young and innocent, induplicable [sic] fun. Ralph [Oswald] and I began playing together in April 1968. The Kiddo joined in April 1970, with Mr. Twister. Forgive me if I don’t get more into it, but I’s boring to get so detailed about a group that no longer exists, and hasn’t for nearly four years.

4. Were you satisfied with the first [self-titled 1971] Milk EP when it came out (and the reaction towards it)?
No, but explaining why would take too long and ultimately prove not worth the trouble so far as I can see.

5. Why didn’t Mr. Twister ever appear on vinyl?
Because he couldn’t carry a tune to save his life and was used sort of as comic relief on stage only.

6. Were you happy with the release of the first album? What did you think of the generally negative reaction it got from “critics”?
No. If we’d spend one-tenth the time on the vocals that we did overdubbing seventy-five thousand guitar parts I might be able to listen to it today without cringing. Since most of Warners either hated us or were embarrassed by our presence on the label, it was doomed from the beginning. Also, I think Chris Thomas is a horrible producer [Thomas has produced, among others, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Queen, Roxy Music, Badfinger, The Pretenders, and The Sex Pistols), although he was at that time of the sessions a very dear friend. I’ve come to believe that it deserved the reaction it got. (Essentially, C. Mil’s biggest problem was that ours – or, more accurately, Ralph’s – ambitions far exceeded our abilities as musicians. Of course, I didn’t realize this fully until much later.)

7. Do you have favorite songs off the first LP?
“Tiger,” “A Second Hard Viola” (which I still think Rod Stewart ought to record) (that’s me on drums), the last part of “[The] Babyshoes [Bittersuite Sad Songs That She Inspired].” (If Ralph’s techniques equalled his melodic inventiveness he’d be the best guitarist in rock.)

8. What were the final “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” [1973] single sessions like and did the band immediately break up after being dropped from Warners?
Great fun for everyone save The Kiddo, who disliked the way I recorded and mixed he bass (I produced, but didn’t give myself credit because my work as a critic had made us so many powerful enemies). We broke up almost immediately after the single flopped, having no manager, no label, no agency, no gigs, few fans.

9. Did ya go solo and record things solo before the invention of the Pits, and how did that band come about?
I began working on my own stuff a couple of months before the Milk officially called it quits. The Pits came about because I realized that my trying to synthesize everything on an ARP Odyssey [analog synthesizer] wasn’t’ working.

10. If you had to choose a few songs which have influenced your writing of songs the most, which would you choose?
“Here, There and Everywhere,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “For No One,” “Tattoo,” and so on far into the night. I’ve always been the soft to succumb unhesitatingly to a beautiful melody and a poignant or amusing bunch of lyrics. “For No One’s” my all-time fave.

11. What’s the normal day of John Mendelssohn like today?
Wake up, get out of bed, have a bowl of Team [cereal], some apple juice, several cups of coffee, re-read the LA Times’ Sports Section 85 times, go in den/studio and brood, make lunch, go back into den to sulk until mid-afternoon, go run mile as fast as possible and play basketball or tennis at Fairfax High School (alma mater of Phil Spector), come home, sulk until Marie comes home from work, eat dinner, get high, make love, watch TV or brook some more (or sometimes work on prose or new song), wonder why it’s taking so long to put new Pits line-up together, go to sleep.

12. If you had to briefly characterize your songs what would you say they’re about?
All manner of things, whimsical and wondrous. People are forever comparing me to Sparks, which I detest with a passion.

13. How many songs have you written in your life and which are your favorites?
Around forty. Favorites: “Prepared to Love,” “Autumn Approaching,” “Where’s My Jane?”

14. Do you have a favorite and least favorite rock critic?
Favorite: Lester Bangs, even though he no longer returns my calls. All-time least favorite: Ed Ward [at the time, writing for Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, and Creem].

15. What do you think you’ll be doing at age sixty?

16. Why aren’t you singing on the new Pits recordings?
I’m very insecure – with good reason – about my voice. But I am getting better.

17. If you had to choose between journalism and songwriting, which would you choose?
Not between songwriting and journalism, but between music and prose. (Sitting at my Hohner String Vox [electric keyboard] for hours on end trying to make a song work isn’t the fun part: recording and performing are infinitely more enjoyable.) I’d take music.

18. Do you envision a day when the Pits will play Dodger and Yankee Stadiums?
I’d settle for the Santa Monica Civic.

19. Do you think superstardom will change you?
Probably a little. In this regard, one couldn’t do better than Bev Bevan [English drummer for the likes of The Move, ELO and Black Sabbath], who’s remained one of the nicest guys and best friends in the world in spite of everything.

20. Do you regret anything you’ve done in this life?
To be honest, there aren’t a lot of things I don’t regret. I’m not one of nature’s happier sorts as a general rule. (When it comes to finding a way to be miserable, even when it appears that everything’s coming up roses, I’m topped only by Chris Thomas.)

21. What would you like written on your grave when you have to go to the popstar heaven in the sky?
Here lies John Mendelssohn.

22. What advice would you have for rock journalist types and somewhat saner folks who want to pursue the road to being a superstar?
I’m the last person anyone in his right mind would come to for advice.

23. Are you generally cheerful or optimistic would you say?
Not hardly.

24. Why haven’t there been more live appearances by the Mendelssohn bands?
We couldn’t get bookings. God knows we rehearsed enough.

25. If you had to put your lifetime goals in twenty-five words or less, what would they be?
I’d like one day to be very happy.

26. What do you think of the (formal) education you’ve had?
Roughly 95% of the teachers and professors I had over the course of sixteen years of schooling ought to be shot, or at least allowed never again to open their stupid yaps within hearing of impressionable youngsters.

27. If you could live in another decade than this one, is there any particular one you’d choose?
I think I could learn to love the present century’s ‘forties and ‘sixties (and probably ‘twenties) in perpetuity.

28. What would you do if there was no rock-n-roll?
Not play quite so loud.

29. Do you have favorite books and authors and films and TV shows and foods?
Authors: Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, Frederick Exley. TV: “Saturday Night Life” with Tony Kaufman (who with Albert Brooks is one of the two funniest men in America), “M*A*S*H,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “60 Minutes.” (I used to be dedicated to “All in the Family,” which I know longer enjoy, to the point at which I once came off stage in Irvine at 7:20 and was back in my favorite chair in my house in Laurel Canyon some 62 mile away in time to watch, having broken every possible traffic law in-between. Incidentally, a corner of said chair is visible in one of the photographs of me on the back of the Milk album, taken a few houses after I had my wisdom teeth extracted.) Food: Marie’s world-famous (ask Mr. and Mrs. B. Bevan of Birmingham, England, if you don’t believe me) fried fish, Marie’s world-famous chef salad, just about anything at Au Petit Café on Vine in Hollywood.

30. Do you have any final word to your fans across the world?
Some day

No comments:

Post a Comment