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Grinding Axes

By Sal Moriarty

Everything is reviewed in 2022. Light Googling will show that the Indian Ocean is a 5-star alternative to the 3.4-star Arctic and Southern Oceans (too cold, most reviews helpfully point out). The Harvard Crimson

This is the age of the critic. As noted in the above quote, now days everything is reviewed. What a nightmare it must be to own a small business and be subject to the whims of a general public with a million grievances.

Years ago, when critics were (generally) professionals, there could be accountability for dumb reviews. Rolling Stone magazine (specifically, a critic named John Mendelsohn) never lived down the review for Led Zeppelin's eponymous debut album. The critic wrote, “...if they're to help fill the void created by the demise of Cream, they will have to find a producer...and some material worthy of their collective attention.” The producer needing replacing was a chap named Jimmy Page.

This was the album containing now classic cuts such as “Communication Breakdown” and “Dazed and Confused” (among others). I am reasonably sure, being a professional critic, Mr. Mendelsohn stands by the review till this day (assuming he is still among the living). Hey, at least he liked The Pixies. Whatever the case, he is now pretty much forgotten, while Led Zeppelin live out their golden years in absurd wealth and comfort (well, three of them anyway) and boast Rock and Roll Hall of Fame trophies on their mantels. That said, back in the day critics had to hang their names on their criticisms and you have to respect that, especially when viewed in a modern context.

There is a thing called liquid courage. We are all familiar with it and have probably witnessed, or taken part in, it's application. This, at least, usually comes with regret. Once the transient bravery has passed, we're stuck with the consequences. In 21st century America, incognito courage is all the rage. This, as best I can tell, is rarely followed by regret or embarrassment. In fact, it seems to have the opposite effect, usually emboldening the dubious and mysterious arbiters of tastes. How introspective can a guy who goes by be?

One of the ironies of this amateur age of criticism is one has no way to determine whether the critique is even a legitimate point of view. Does the assistant manager from the local convenience store actually feel the pizza tasted like cardboard or did he go to school with the pizzeria owner and never got over the fact that guy dated the prom queen? It goes the other way, too. Were the “world famous fajitas” actually brimming with unparalleled flavor and the restaurant resplendent with ambiance or was the reviewer the joint owner's mother?

Years ago, I became enamored by this magic and democratic new technology. I, a humble laborer, could write a review on Amazon and hundreds (or thousands) of folks from around the world could be enlightened by my brilliant insights (yes, I recognize the irony in this endeavor sharing some similarities – except for the hundreds or thousands of readers). I started by reviewing albums I thought were brilliant but overlooked. I wrote a glowing review of Glen Campbell's little-known album “Reunion – The Songs of Jimmy Webb” (1974) and Townes Van Zandt's stunning “Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas” (recorded in 1973, released in 1977). It was fun to highlight great music I knew most were unaware of but, as seems to be the case with these technologies, it turned dark.

In short order, I was seeking out works I thought were blather, but hugely popular (I will refrain from listing them here, not wanting to repeat the error of my ways). It was an ego builder. I know things you don't know. My tastes are elevated. Yours, pedestrian.

Then, one day, I wrote a scathing review of a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album. I am a big fan and was disappointed by the record (still not a favorite). I sent my magnificent observations into the virtual universe and sat back, quite satisfied with myself. I went back regularly to survey the number of readers exposed to my genius and responded, quite cleverly, to their comments. This seems to be a trait of those engaged in such endeavors. I don't have to tell you it said a lot more about me, than Tom Petty or Amazonian readers.

After a few weeks or so, I once again pulled up my review in order to bask in the glow. Then, something happened. I don't know if the stars were aligned in a profound manner (they weren't, stars don't do that) or if I experienced a road to Damascus moment (it wasn't that either). For whatever reason, probably upbringing, I thought, “What a jerk.” Here I was, some nobody, telling men who had achieved at the highest level possible in their field and made millions upon millions of people happy through their work, that their newest effort did not pass muster with an electronics store manager. These men had come from nothing and were now internationally renowned musicians. I didn't like their new record and felt a need to dump on it to the world. Again, said much more about me than Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers.

Now, I am not saying we must bow down to the rich and famous and wildly successful. I'm not saying we have to “know our place”. I'm not talking about criticizing politicians or the insane state of our world, but I am saying when we feel the need to spew venom on the hard work and creative efforts of others, we should do some serious thinking as to the reasons why. To continue with a theme here, the reasons can probably be found in a mirror.

I saw a Glenn Frey (Eagles) interview in which he was asked, years after the fact, about the lukewarm review given to the Eagles' “Hotel California” album by (again) Rolling Stone. I thought the response was spot-on when he said, “...these people sit at typewriters, in funky corners of the world, and sort of wish they were doing what we were doing.”

That is true now, more than ever. I don't want to be one of those people.


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