One of the Great Veteran Rock Journalists Is Also a Poet
The list of individuals I consider an inspiration on this half-assed (almost) full-time job I call “writing” is slim. Very slim. But high atop that scant group, you will most certainly see the name of Northampton, Mass., resident and Chuck Norris biographer Byron Coley.
Getting his start writing for New York Rocker in the late ’70s, Coley wormed his way into contributing to a glut of various music rags at the time, championing the likes of Captain Beefheart, Devo and many other unsung artists. Smack dab in the middle of the ’80s, he began writing the “Underground” column for Spin, as well as co-editing arguably the best fanzine of the decade and beyond, Forced Exposure. Through both of these printed vessels, the man turned a generation of jaded proto-indie rockers, punks and various other unwanted types onto an uncountable amount of singular artists such as Albert Ayler, the Dead C, the Pink Fairies, Sonic Youth, Jandek and way too many fucking others.
Currently, Coley writes his monthly “Size Matters” column for the British music magazine The Wire, as well as reams of poetry, which he reads all over the planet. The first official collection of his work, entitled Defense Against Squares, will be rolling out this week by the French-Canadian publisher, L’Oie De Cravan. To get a little heat going underneath the book’s release, I talked to Coley about how the poetry thing sprang up, his feelings on rock criticism in 2017 and ... undergarments.
Where did your interest in poetry start, and what was the initial motivation in writing some on your own?
I was aware of ’60s underground poetry for a long time, but apart from the big names — Charles Bukowski, Ed Sanders, Allen Ginsberg and various other beat guys — I didn't know much about it. I started connecting them with people like Patti Smith and Richard Hell as the punk thing evolved, and I started to hit places like the Gotham Book Mart in Midtown Manhattan. Still, it was all pretty vague to me until the ’80s when Bob Moore — who ran the early hardcore label Version Sound — started to school me on Midwest underground guys like D.A. Levy, Tom Kryss, Doug Blazek and the like. That stuff was really eye-opening on all aesthetic levels — physically, intellectually and weirdness-wise.
Anyway, I started collecting the stuff pretty seriously, and encouraged Thurston [Moore] to do the same, so we were both going nuts buying loads of the stuff, which could still be had for cheap, trying to figure out who some of these people were, and how they were connected. So, I was really kinda soaking in this stuff, and at some point decided I was probably old enough — and had enough of an idea of what I wanted to do — to try my hand at it. That was pretty much it. I'd just publish my own little chapbooks so I didn't have to worry about what anyone else thought, but nobody griped too hard.
After putting out a few chapbooks of poetry, what made you decide to finally release a full-fledged book of the stuff?
A few people had made some noise about doing a collection over the years. One that almost came to fruition was to be called Pants Down, Earthlings, and [would have been] published by John Shaw's Gladtree Press. But after I did that C'est La Guerre collection of my rock writing in 2011, the publisher started asking if I'd be up for a bilingual poetry anthology. Sounded fine to me. Doing a book is a certain amount of work, even if it's a collection, but they lend a certain sense of durability to one's status. Even if it's only imaginary.
Did you regard writing poetry as some sort of cleansing or relief from the usual rock critic shit?
I'm sure that was part of it. As soon as I hit 30, Richard Meltzer started telling me it was time to retire from rock writing, it was a dead end and so forth. And I pretty much agreed with him that it was a dead end, but it was something I'd literally been doing since I was in grade school, so I always thought of it as what I actually wanted to do, rather than a stop along the way. I had tried fiction, but find it to be very heavy lifting, so it takes me forever. Poetry was something it was possible to do in short form that was more satisfying than a record review, so yeah, I suppose it was a relief of sorts.
Do you see a similarity between writing a poem and the short-form record reviews you’ve been doing for The Wire for a few years?
They are similar to short-form reviews, which is something I've done a real lot of over the years. In a way, poems and short reviews are functionally similar to Minutemen lyrics — you often try to pare them back and strip them down as much as you can so that the idea you're trying to convey is more a flash than anything else.
Going back to what Meltzer told you about rock criticism being a dead end, now that you’re looking down the other end of the barrel many years later, was he right?
I always knew that Meltzer was more or less right about rock criticism being a cul de sac. After I'd been doing it for a few years, it became fairly obvious that, in the relative pecking order of writers, rock critics were at the dag end of the stick. I never really looked at is as a career, anyway. Apart from a few fat years in the '80s, my pay has generally been in the high four figures, which is why I’m always selling off chunks of my record collection. It has been years since my writing has even paid the rent on my office. I mostly just do it to keep up to date with what's going on. And also, I really don't trust many other people's opinions on music.
Is concentrating mostly on poetry in the past few years an unconscious action or statement on the current state of rock journalism?
The state of rock journalism is something that causes me to lose very little sleep. There are always some good writers who have original ideas and insights, and then there's a vast landscape crammed with careerist sheep. Why anyone thinks there's a living to be made in the field is something I can't quite figure out, but there are so many mimetic dogfish out there, I think the rumor must be floating somewhere that it's a solid job choice. It is always galling to me to see one-sheets I write for records get paraphrased as "reviews," but it's nothing new. Might be more prevalent now, since there's an idiotic rush to be the first one to write some lousy words about a new record, with little consideration of whether the writing is any good. People seem very afraid to express any actual opinion about material that hasn't already been written about by someone else. They can react to opinions, but not to the music itself. Something's weird about it — that's for sure. I've been doing this shit for a long time — over 40 years — and there has never really been a golden age for the rock-write form. The closest we come to that are occasional confluences of good fanzines and good music.
I just feel the current model of half-assed song premieres and clickbait listicles is pretty nauseating — especially when you find yourself taking part in it to make ends meet. Do you think this blanket laziness will make the beast implode or grow to even greater heights of mediocrity?
In terms of mass-tongue-acceptance, it's hard to see why anything should get much better. People have shorter attention spans than they used to, so I think the atomization of information will probably continue, compressing word-spurts into shorter and shorter bursts.
Do you think since 99 percent of it is online, that makes it more disposable?
That seems like an easy case to make, since the pay for writing has dropped so precipitously over the past 20 years. But probably the majority of rock writing before the internet boom was done for metro weekly giveaways that were equally disposable. I can remember when I wrote for The Village Voice and Doug Simmons would spend two fucking hours on the phone with me going over some stupid review word-by-word. I'd say, "Doug, man, this review is gonna be wrapping a goddamn mackerel in two days. Let's just call it good." But he'd persist. I don't think there's anything close to that attention to detail anymore, except at the biggest glossies, and it's probably the loss of that quality control that hurts the form more than anything else.
Getting back to the poetry, are they any particular records or artists that you like to listen to while writing, or do you enjoy silence?
It varies. Generally, I won't play new music since that distracts my attention. But silence can be fine, too. I don't really have any rituals for writing poetry. I have been writing more or less every day for over 40 years now, so it's just something I'm generally prepared to do at the drop of a goddamn hat.
And finally ... boxers or briefs?
Defense Against Squares is available from Forced Exposure.