May 20th, 2012

“Ther is absolutely no doubt that the extraordinary Donna Summer belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Regrettably, despite being nominated on a number of occasions, our voting group has failed to recognize her–an error I can only hope is finally and permanently rectified next year.” — Jon Landau, chairman, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee

I loved Donna. She was sweet and  smart every time I got a chance to meet her. And she never acted the diva. One of my greatest regrets is that our plans to do an interview on Kick Out the Jams, my Sirius radio show, in 2008, when she’d put out Crayons fell through.

She was NOT churchy. She was not just a dance music singer. In the way she dealt with beats, essentially square on, she was a flat-out rock singer. If she were white, Donna Summer would have been in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the minute she was eligible. If she were white, I wouldn’t have to explain it.

I hope we change those facts next year, too.



April 16th, 2012

You probably never knew my friend Kathy Rich. You really missed something. A good way to find out what is to read Margalit Fox’s obituary for her in the April 7 New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/07/health/katherine-russell-rich-who-wrote-of-cancer-fight-dies-at-56.html?hpw). I’d bet all my socks that Fox knew Kathy, partly because she captures so much that’s crucial about her and partly because Kathy seemed to know everybody. (I seem that way too and we had more than one laugh about our mutual reputations in this regard.)

I’m not so sure Kathy would be thrilled about the headline–she did so much more than fight cancer, although to a lot of folks it would maybe seem like she just lived her life (likethat’s a little thing). But her book, The Red Devil, is the definitive account of the price of surviving cancer–in her case, a 19 year struggle against stage IV breast cancer, and yes, I know that sounds impossible. All the more reason for you to read it, for anybody who is beginning or in the middle of cancer treatment to know it by heart, which is what happens when you read it.

It is not a guidebook on how to survive. Stage IV is lethal, and after a couple of decades even Kathy Rich couldn’t live with it anymore. Fuck that. What matters is, she lived.

I met Kathy in ’94, I think, or maybe late ’93. I told our mutual friend Joanne Goldberg that I was going to up to Sloan-Kettering, the NYC cancer hospita, to do something else. She said that Kathy was in the hospital with stage four breast cancer, and she was a writer too. I ought to meet her. I’ve gotten better advice but not often.

Kathy was a horror, as anyone is after bone marrow transplant. Swollen of face, scrawny of limb, bald, her room a havoc. There were no pictures around but I understood for other reasons–personality, confidence, but not complaints–that she was under what had previously been normal circumstances an attractive woman.

Sitting in the chair next to the bed talking to her was a guy who turned out to be the best friend of my own family doctor. He and I sat by for an hour or two, as Kathy held forth about the travails of the hour–not just cancer, but the treachery of magazine jouranlism and of the men in her life. She did not so much continually reiterate as act our her intention of beating her illness…fuck cancer, she was more or less in a mood to beat death itself. And you had to think, yeah, yeah, she might.

We had journalism in common, which we had practiced very differently but there is not all that much distance between Rolling Stone and Allure, come to that; and we had had very different experiences of cancer, and while what had already happened to my duaghter Kristen and what not been happening to Kathy suck equally, they are quite different–survival without the disease relinquishing its grip might be worse than death, or so we had to suppose. But we also had to suppose that living was better tahn dying, and there you are, the paradox of young adults with cancer. “Can’t stop won’t stop,” indeed.

Anyway, we supposed both things together and for all our differences, after that day, she was my friend and I tried to be hers. I did what I could to support her book, when it came out, and I knew I could send any young woman who needed it to her book and thence to Kathy herself and they would always have some wisdom imparted from that source. We have many more friends in common for many other reasons.

Then, when she didn’t die, Kathy went off to India to study the language. She had a habit of sort of disappearing for a couple of years and then turning back up, always chastened, never less determined, and she’d tell me about the journey, the weird people she met, what she’d learned, what she decided not to learn, how many relapses and surgeries and dodged bullets had come across her path. I’d fill her in on what I’d been doing. We’d do a little gossiping, we’d laugh, we’d both wonder more than we let on how long anyone could survive stage IV breast cancer (as the saying goes, there is no stage V). I don’t know what she assumed. I assumed she was so tough and smart, she might outlive me, at least, and probably a whole lot of other people. (And in a whole lot of the other cases she did and hell yeah, that’s something to brag about.)

And that was it. The second book, Dreaming in Hindi, was both a struggle to read — it was so internalized, it was so unmetaphoric, so literally true. Which mean you couldn’t put it down either. It’s really not about learning to speak Hindi, and it’s not even a travel book, or a book about how to live in cultures that are poles apart. It’s about trying to inhabit the mind of strangers, maybe. And it is ruthless about the strangers, the author, the world in which it occurs, and out of that ruthlessness comes a stronger sense of Kathy’s intelligence, courage, and determination than you get in the cancer book. I read a few chapters and thought about them and read some more. Sometimes a year would go by and I wouldn’t touch it and then I’d dive in again and get lost in her head. I never told her this–it was embarassing, no one reads books like that, it’s like an implicit criticism. But really all it means is, you don’t drink a strong bottle to the bottom any way but warily…if the contents are as pure on your palate as they are powerful.

Kathy’s struggle seemed endless: when we met, I had hair and Kathy didn’t, then I lost about half of mine and the rest turned gray, while hers grew back and looked just fine. Twenty years is a very very long time. And most of that time, we had no idea what hte hell was up with her. But when I sent a newly diagnosed friend, whose tumor was also at stage four and also seemed indolent, to talk to her, it was just the right thing to do and Kathy and I emailed about it but we didn’t talk on the phone or see one another for lunch or any of that. I didn’t know such a serious relapse had occurred–although I knew there were relapses, they were pretty much continual– and the news took my breath away that Saturday morning.

Kathy was nothing like Kris Carr, who has an indolent tumor and has an hilarious survival yarn about it that has, I suppose, saved many lives, presuming that relying on eating a lot of wheatgrass and other dietary stuff, and yoga, etc. has anything to do with surviving cancer. I don’t know what Kathy ate and if I had asked her, she’d have very likely said something that amounted to, “What made that your business, buster,” and moved on to what she was actually interested in, which was her life. (Skeptics are like that and no journalist worth anything is not a skeptic, even if the writer in question is also a true believer.)

But these kind of semi-survivable tumors do exist and not only in breast cancer. They’re rare but so are the kind of people who know how to make a life, really a life not just a series of struggling days. Kathy taught me that, and how you have to live differently and not compromise a single one of your goals or principles as you fight, because you fight. And that it could be done.

I asked her once why she left Allure, and she said some of the things about it that are in the Times article and then–now that I think of it, it might have been that day in the hospital–she spun this long, rather mordantly funny story about her last days in the fashion journalism world, and how Conde Nast reacted to her departure: They gave her a lunch with the staff, or something like that, and a Prada bag, the same thing they gave everyone who left in relatively good graces. The message was not “I’m nothing special,” the message was “they don’t know I’m something special.” Is there bitterness attached to that? Well, there ought to be.

Kathy wasn’t everyone, she was as specific a someone as anybody I’ve had the luck to know and care about. And I am pissed off about it to this day, because she’s right, the devil of cancer is red, not black. Blood red. And to this day, when I see Prada–the logo, the clothes, the ads–I think about Kathy Rich and how little respect she got and how much she deserved.

Well, all I’m trying to say is, Kathy Rich was a great person and I loved her, truly I did. And, you know, as long as I’m here, she’s here, I’ll make sure of remembering her however I can. And telling you about it is part of that.

So startled and sad as I was when I heard the news, I didn’t cry. I started to and then I got to thinking about Kathy and how it was that we met and how it was that we were friends, and I think the tears just got beaten back by the only thing that sometimes can do that, even in the face of death, which is the living truth, as we have ourselves witnessed it.

Here’s what she taught me in a nutshell: You have to die and you have to bear it in mind. Then you have to go out and be who you are and let the dying take care of itself. And rage, rage, because that isn’t Tinkerbell’s light that’s dying, it’s your own and, goddamn it, it’s irreplaceable—irreplaceable to everybody not just you.

So don’t clap your hands to save Kathy Rich, just live your life and refuse to forget that it will end someday. That’s not just the acclamation she deserves. It’s the one she earned.



April 9th, 2012

I wrote this for Rock & Rap Confidential, the (now online) newsletter about music and politics I’ve edited with Lee Ballinger for thirty years–we started right about this time of year, too, I think. I’ve said very little at RRC in recent months, and this topic (suggested by Lee) seems a good place to get in and start wrestlin’ with written words again.

You can subscribe to RRC, which sends out news items and various sorts of analysis on a regular basis, by going to rockrap.com.


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The massive South by Southwest music festival (SXSW) has been held in Austin, Texas in the spring of every year since 1987. Dave Marsh reports on this year’s shindig.

I know something about SXSW keynote addresses. Little Richard and Smokey Robinson both did theirs as, in part, dialogues with me—sitting live in front of several hundred people, Richard being Richard, Smokey being serious, sincere, smart, and as handsome as seventy will allow.

To a certain extent, it’s a setup: All the attendees who don’t care find other things to do and most of the rest come to have expectations affirmed. But it’s not that simple either. I had the best fun of the last twenty years just asking four questions, sitting and watching Little Richard rave for (I timed it) 17 and a half minutes without pausing for breath. Then he turned to me, clearly winded, and said breathlessly, “Ohhh, Dave! You’re still here. I bet you want to ask me some more questions.”

But it’s not that simple either. The best moments can also be absolutely pedagogical: Smokey ended with a seven minute spiel telling people how to find and deal with stardom, beginning with an admonition (“Thicken your skin”) and ending with a parable about the invention of show business. Since 2010 that last part’s gotten almost half a million hits on YouTube. Richard, who appeared in ’08, seemed to just rant but in reality he was preaching a sermon on the same theme as Smokey, offering all kinds of nuggets but coming back to the main point over and over again: “Sign your own checks!…Sign your own checks!” Afterwards, a young woman came up to me, eyes a brimful of tears, and said, “Thank you, thank you, that was everything I came here to learn.”

Steve Earle began by lecturing his audience: “Let me make something extremely clear. Kiss is not cool, Kiss was never cool, Kiss will never be cool.”

But Bruce Springsteen, this year, was something else again. He offered career advice wrapped in biography, history complete with instructive examples of where he’d swiped a couple of his classics: the doo-wop crooning that led to “Backstreets,” the way the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” provided the core of “Badlands,” and how and why “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” is “every song I’ve ever written including the new ones.” Rocker he may be, but not rockist: “The elements you’re using don’t matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing it. There’s just doing it.” Bruce wrestled with Lester Bangs and Woody Guthrie, post-authenticity, the transformative self, Roy Orbison’s paranoia, Phil Spector’s musical violence, the cover of Meet the Beatles as “the silent gods of Olympus,” the barely comprehensible existence of Nintendo-core, black death metal, and the yearning needs of soul. It was as if someone had managed to translate “A wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom tutti frutti” into a comprehensive treatise on the development and meaning (or lack thereof) of the past sixty years of Anglo-American popular music.

He avoided the hard political realities at the core of his new album, Wrecking Ball, in favor of talking eye to eye with an audience he assumed (correctly) consisted of people who either knew these things or needed to find them out. It was a practical speech, aimed at a specific group of people. He didn’t even know it was being broadcast live or, as far as I can tell, imagine that it would wind up all over the Internet, words stuck in the heads of millions of listeners. (The full audio’s at npr.org. It’s also worth looking at the segments posted on YouTube, particularly the stuff about the Animals.)

Raves arrived immediately, but I don’t think anyone’s used the term that best describes it for me: Generosity. The speech gave far more than it took and it held back on self-promotion (granted that the entire speech was wrapped in Bruce’s persona, but I’ve already quoted the only reference to his new album.)

Springsteen never has opening acts. That day he had five. Before the SXSW speech, Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, and Juanes sang Woody Guthrie songs (plus one original by Juanes). It was beautiful and loving, and all the things that a tribute to a great artist on his centenary ought to be. The highlight for me wasn’t Juanes singing a verse from “This Land Is Your Land,” which he told me later was the first time he’d ever sung in English onstage, but Juanes stepping up to challenge the audience when it didn’t sing along heartily enough. LaFave sang wonderfully as he always does, his Oklahoma roots deliberately on display, and his commentary on Woody’s music and life more trenchant than ever. And Eliza, firebrand that she is, kept the music contemporary, insisting on its relevance—or rather, insisting on her listeners paying attention to its continuing relation to the world descended from the one Guthrie described. Eliza has been the best female singer-songwriter for several years now, LaFave has been the best interpreter of Guthrie, Dylan and Springsteen for longer than that, and maybe this performance will help the news spread from Austin. Juanes, of course, is a rock star of Springsteen’s magnitude throughout Latin America and much of Europe; imagine John Lennon in Spanish.

That evening at the Moody Theater Springsteen had two openers–Low Anthem and Alejandro Escovedo with his full band each did about 45 minutes. (Springsteen had done a couple of numbers with Alejandro the night before at the Austin Music Awards show.)

The Austin show was only Springsteen’s second since the release of Wrecking Ball and, like its predecessor—an Apollo Theater benefit in honor of SiriusXM’s tenth anniversary—it contained some beautiful one-off wrinkles. Instead of invoking Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett and Smokey Robinson (and James Brown by way of a lunatic climb into the rigging), this time Woody Guthrie framed the action. Bruce opened with his now-17 member E Street Band doing “I Ain’t Got No Home” a cappella and closed with “This Land is Your Land” with Escovedo, Low Anthem, Joe Ely, and a couple members of Arcade Fire helping out.

Is there another performer in our culture who operates in both the folk-rock and soul-gospel traditions? It’s as fashionable lately to evoke Springsteen as a literary figure as it once was to display him as an articulate pseudo-gas station attendant. But what’s most remarkable is the ability to move smoothly among soul and gospel music and the folk and country tradition in the way that Springsteen does. He has reached the point now that on Wrecking Ball’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” he does both in the same song. Generally, one is lurking in the background of the other in any of his songs, especially live. (Which can’t be discerned if all your attention is on the lyrics which is where, I suppose, the shade of the Great American Poem lurks in the minds of the critics who think it’s mostly about the words.) Yet in pulling these sounds together, Springsteen is capable of convincing more than a few that the beloved community truly could be in our future.

The Wrecking Ball songs (at the Moody he played eight of the eleven) have the strongest connecting thread of any Springsteen album since The River–from the furious social questions of “We Take Care of Our Own,” through the economic despair and determination of “Jack of All Trades” and “Death to My Hometown” to the glorious anthem of hope “Rocky Ground”—with its invocation of God, who does not answer—to the final, unambiguous call to action, “We Are Alive.”

I don’t suppose Bruce Springsteen has a much clearer vision of where, exactly, that action must lead to prevent the “hard times come and hard times go” cycle that he pounds away at six consecutive times in the song “Wrecking Ball.” But you can glimpse what it might feel like in any great musical performance, not just one of his. And, from my perspective, that is the real purpose of SXSW. Truth is, there hasn’t been a commercially important act that broke out of the conference since Hanson, fifteen years ago. But so what? It’s still the biggest, best music school in the United States, maybe the world.

And while Bruce’s show couldn’t offer the kind of community that he evokes in songs like “Land of Hope and Dreams,” it did evoke a sense of musician solidarity that’s essential to what happens with SXSW at its best. It’s a glimpse, but even a full-on Bruce and the E Street Band show is just a glimpse of what it would be like to live with equality and justice every day.

SXSW is as imperfect as any other human project. The sheer size of it has outstripped Austin’s transportation infrastructure and its deficit is ever-widening. The business panels are just the record industry trying to talk itself into believing it still exists. Hip-hop, dance, and ethnic music never get an equal shot in the press coverage and Austin’s local Mexican/Chicano community is invisible.


What SXSW offers is a chance to attend that music school not only as student but as teacher. Not to study music but to observe and participate in the stewing mess of it. I have gone to Austin for this peculiar rite of March madness for the past, I think, nineteen years. I went to speak, I went back to listen. I keep going back not because I think I’m going to find any next big thing, but because I might run into musical glory.

This year, I got it in half a dozen ways—from Bruce, of course, but also from Eric Burdon, whose surprise (even to him and Springsteen) appearance to sing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” at the Moody was a fiery proof of every accolade heaped upon the Animals’ frontman earlier that day. Where else could I interview, in the space of forty-eight hours both Juanes and Eric Burdon? Where else could I see old Austin friends like LaFave, Gilkyson, Michael Ramos, Michael Fracasso, Joe Ely and the Krayolas? Where else could I spend an afternoon and evening at a taqueria with Alejandro, Jesse Malin, Lenny Kaye, Rosie Flores, and new favorites like Maren Parusel?

Where else could I (with massive help from David Alvarez at KUT-FM and my producer Jim Rotolo) put on a live Sunday radio show, from nine to eleven AM, with seven musical guests? None of them played a record or sang a song I’d ever heard before. And all of them were flat-out great. None of them got paid—at SXSW no artist at an official gig ever gets paid, and very few get paid at any of the others, either. It is, most of the time, music for the love of music.

I go to SXSW to recharge, to remember why I love music, why we’ve still got a chance. And this year, like that young woman said, I got everything I came to learn.—D.M.

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Making Sense of Ron Paul (courtesy of Tim Wise)

January 28th, 2012

This article originally appeared at the website of Tim Wise, who wrote it. It appears here with the permission of Wise, but you would do well to connect to the original page: http://www.timwise.org/2012/01/of-broken-clocks-presidential-candidates-and-the-confusion-of-certain-white-liberals/ Tim Wise is the outstanding white opponent of racism and white supremacy in the United States today. The connections he makes here […]

A Letter to My Daughter on the Nineteenth Anniversary of Her Death

January 3rd, 2012

Dear Kristen, Can I tell you a secret? It’s ridiculous but I didn’t even know it was a secret until I heard Lady GaGa’s “Hair” this morning and then I realized that I’d kept it even from myself. In my ears, it’s a record where I always find you. “I’ve had enough, this is my […]


December 2nd, 2011

Effective December 4, 2011, my Sunday morning SiriusXM program, Kick Out the Jams, which covers the world of music, with an emphasis on music and current events (or music and politics, if you prefer) moves from the Loft (channel 30) to The Spectrum (channel 28). The first show on The Spectrum will be the pre-recorded […]

Who’s Demonizing Who?

October 17th, 2011

President Obama said yesterday that Dr. Martin Luther King would want “us” (whomever that may be) to “challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing those who work there.” Talk about raising more questions than you answer! Let us ask: 1. For what reason should the proscription against “demonizing” apply to Operation Wall Street and […]

Music on Kick Out the Jams for July 31, 2011

July 29th, 2011

We’re pre-recorded this weekend so I can be sure that what I wrote down is what actually plays. We usually change several pieces of music every week–pieces get removed because we’re out of time (talked too much, or I miscalculated), or because I had a brainstorm on Sunday morning before the show (at home–good, I […]

Music from Kick Out the Jams July 17 and July 24, 2011

July 25th, 2011

Kick Out the Jams 7 17 2011 Howdido, Woody Guthrie CD: Nursery Days Do Re Me, Bob Dylan  CD: The People Speak soundtrack Pastures of Plenty/This Land is Your Land, Lila Downs CD: La Linea This Land Is Your Land, Bruce Springsteen CD: Live 1975-1985, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Buffalo Skinners, Jim […]

Why I have no need to write fiction

July 15th, 2011

From the Rock & Rap Confidential mailing list (www.rockrap.com). Letter to the  Baltimore Sun July 7,  2011 Sen. Benjamin Cardin’s recent letter defending Bono and his ONE foundation puts him in direct opposition to President Obama’s appeal for “corporate jet” owners to pay their fair share of tax (“Cardin: ONE Campaign works,” June 27). U2 […]