Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Through The Lens of Joel Selvin

Walking through Joel Selvin’s house, one can’t help but feel overwhelmed. Every corner feels jam-packed with souvenirs, concert posters, and other miscellaneous musical paraphenellia framed or held in glass casings. Shelves packed tightly with records extend to the ceiling, giving off the impression that, if not for the necessity of a roof, they would tower through the clouds. The sheer amount of stuff makes the house feels a lot smaller than it is, but it compensates for its crowdedness with the aura of experience and passion it projects. “I put a lot of time and effort and study and work into attaining a position of authority and knowledge and expertise that I try to bring to bear on everything I do.”

Indeed, most of everything that Selvin does suggests he is a music fan first and a journalist second. His resume is a perfect example, entailling much more than his famous 36 years as one of the leading pop music critics at the SF Chronicle.

Granted, those 36 years were important. Many up-and-coming writers aknowledge the influence he’s had, such as Trey Bundy, a contributing writer to SF Weekly and The Chronicle. “He's a Bay Area luminary,” Bundy says, “I've been seeing his byline since I was a kid.”

But Selvin also taught History of Rock Music for 15 years at San Francisco State University, helped contribute to the foundation of Rock related organizations such as H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers) and Thunder Road (youth rehab center), written 9 music-related books, co-produced albums, including Dick Dale’s popular comeback record from 1993, and even helped form and perform in a band, the Rock Bottom Remainders. Evidently, Selvin doesn’t just write about music; he lives it.

The history of his career is further proof. Selvin is representative of a specific breed of music critics from the late 60s, who were mostly inspired by the groundbreaking coverage of Ralph Gleason, one of the first journalists to write about Rock seriously. Today, a high school dropout becoming a professional Journalist is an alien notion, yet in the late 60’s the ground floor had just been set and was more widely open, especially for someone as passionate about music as Selvin. “When I started writing about Rock music for the Chronicle there weren’t a lot of people doing that. It’s not like there was a wide talent pool to choose from.”

Selvin didn’t have a degree and not much formal training, but as an aspiring field expert, Selvin grew up in a prime environment and time for growth: Berkeley in the 1960’s. “The Jefferson Airplane played on my high school steps after school once. I saw the concert business grow from a small business to something major. I covered the record business going from millions of sellers to ten million sellers.” Indeed, most of his success seems to have come being at the right place and the right time with the right interest. “They didn’t hire me because of my Journalism training!”

But how does an aging commentator for the golden-era of popular Rock music in print deal with the huge Journalistic shifts caused by the changing technology (the internet) over the past decade? Selvin is one of the “godfather” writers who is most affected by the emerging gray areas between amateur blogging and professional, informed Journalism, and he knows it, becoming visibly uncomfortable when the topic is even mentioned. “The internet has an extraordinary amount of misinformation and there’s nothing to really distinguish the good information. It’s out there, but it’s just in a morass of personal opinions and badly-tended websites. So I’m real scrupulous about loaning my writing to the web. It’s so easy to confuse it with someone who has access to the internet and a keyboard of his own. And I have in mind distinguishing myself as a commentator and a thinker and a writer.”

Aspiring Journalists struggle with the same problem. Aaron Light, a Journalism student at San Francisco City College and a writer for his college paper, is one of the many young music enthusiasts who, in the words of Selvin, “feels like they’ve missed the party.”

“It’s such a struggle to distinguish yourself as a writer with the internet,” Light said. “Not only do I have so much more competition, I don’t have such a uniform audience like Rock music writers did back then. There’s more variation in popular music today.”

Selvin, for the most part agrees with this, describing the current state of music as “fragmented,” and “spread out.”

“The world has become this immense banquet of music without a single tightly focused directed movement, say, like the one that went through the pop charts in 1964 behind the Beatles,” Selvin says. “There is no one radio station, concert hall or record store that can encompass that much of popular music fan’s tastes anymore. It’s a bunch of small movements without heads.”

But while Selvin has decided that he will be “shifting a little bit more of his professional focus toward writing books,” he doesn’t completely disregard the possible survival of criticism and journalism in the future. “We are in a sort of social frappe. The Blender is on and because we’re inside being chopped up, we can’t see out. Everything is changing, but the job that newspapers do; the role that we journalists and critics perform in society; that’s not going away.”

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