High notes

Bill Brown is back in town with memories of Ann Arbor's eclectic '80s music scene

Dec 1, 2010 at 12:00 am

You Should've Heard Just What I Seen: Collected Newspaper Articles, 1981-1984

Bill Brown
Colossal Books, $25, 376 pp.

This week, a book-signing in Ann Arbor marks the return of one-time local music critic and Metro Times writer Bill Brown. (Full disclosure: The author and Brown became friends in the late 1990s in New York.) Though Brown hasn't written for MT in 27 years, his new book, You Should've Heard Just What I Seen, collects writing that appeared in several local papers, and should be of interest to local music fans across the sonic spectrum.

After dropping out of college in 1980, Brown had hoped to become "the new Lester Bangs," and after numerous rejections from The New York Times and the Village Voice (he got close with the Voice, at least; Robert Christgau sent him a "Not bad"), he gravitated to Ann Arbor with vague hopes of finishing school at the University of Michigan. But he also found himself at the crossroads of many different kinds of music passing through that college town. After enrolling at U-M, getting involved with WCBN-FM and sampling the local musical offerings, Brown pestered the Ann Arbor News to let him write a weekly column about music. Which they did.

With his weekly gig, Brown let forth a surprisingly informed stream of opinions on music, both local and national, backing up his views with pretty strong research that must have required some work in pre-Internet days. And the thousands of words he's compiled in What I Seen really highlight the eclectic music hitting Michigan's main college town. Though lots of music writers mostly cover what they love, Brown's coverage sprawled all over, betraying a catholic taste in music. In reviews and columns, he wrote about Prince, Ozzy Osbourne, Haircut 100, the Misfits, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, S.S. Decontrol, Earl Klugh, Ultravox, Jodie Foster's Army, Lords of the New Church and Toshiko Akiyoshi, to name a few national acts — as well as local luminaries the Urbations, the State, Marcus Belgrave, Destroy All Monsters, Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band, the Necros, the Electrifying Mojo and more.

Speaking from his apartment in Cincinnati's Clifton neighborhood, Brown recalls the variety of music Ann Arbor hosted in the 1980s, but also remembers the tension that existed between various local scenes, where "forms of music were isolated and sort of opposed to each other." By way of example, he refers to his piece on a JFA show, describing the mixed reactions to the surf-thrash combo. "The hardcore people would thrash around to the hardcore sounds, but then stay off the floor when the band did its surf tunes: As if there were something ideologically impure about surf music, even though it was being played by a hardcore band."

In fact, Brown's penchant for spotting contradictions and poking musical self-righteousness in the eye is what makes his criticism — as in the sense of actually criticizing something — so full of life and energy. Perhaps it's what also did him in as a local critic in the end.

For instance, in the summer of 1983, Brown wrote an essay for this paper titled "The death of hardcore," over which a battle raged in MT's letters section for weeks. The tasty little article is reprinted in the book.

Brown explains: "I began to proclaim that hardcore punk had suffocated on its own self-righteousness. Or to quote the Velvet Underground's Sterling Morrison, he said that, in the '60s, he hated folk music. Folk was telling people in a moralizing way what they were doing wrong — and it was implicit that what the singer was doing was right. A lot of the preaching had to do with social issues involving white people and black people. What Sterling Morrison said about the Velvet Underground was that, instead of preaching, they just made dance music that black and white people could dance to together. And you have the same thing with hardcore: 'This is what you're doing wrong.' And that stance is a folk stance."

Though the article caused a fracas, it's worth noting how accurately Brown pegged the "death" of hardcore's first wave, quite close to where today's hardcore historians have placed it.

Despite how kind history has been to Brown's views, in the end, it was editors who ended his career for him.

Brown says, "They told me, 'This is very nice, and we no longer want you to do it for us.'"

The end at the Ann Arbor News came in the summer of 1983. Brown says, "I lost my column because there were too many letters to the editor from local high school kids complaining about me talking about them and their friends' punk bands. At the same time, I was having trouble publishing specifically what I thought David Bowie was up to. One the one hand, he wasn't just selling out, he was cleaning up his act. The News was resistant to me saying that last part. After the concert, when I tried to say he was doing things that were way over his audiences' head — intellectual things. I got letters to the editor complaining. And they got somebody harmless instead."

A stint at the progressive Michigan Voice eventually rendered him persona non grata with then-editor Michael Moore, over a piece about Bruce Springsteen.

"He said I was too negative — his word — because I dared criticize Born in the U.S.A. The whole record sounded very, very commercial, so it wasn't simply how it played out with Ronald Reagan quoting the song. This was the first moment it became clear that Bruce Springsteen was going to be a rich man. And that he was going to have to go through the stuff that Bob Dylan did, which is figure out how to become a protest singer while being rich. ... And Michael Moore didn't want any part of it."

With a laugh, Brown adds, "Good thing there's the Internet now; we don't have to worry about editors anymore."

Bill Brown will give a talk and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m., Dec. 7, at Borders Books, 612 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-4024.