Sex, Drugs & Rock Criticism: Richard Goldstein on the Sixties
What were your favorite groups back then?
I adored the girl groups — my first real rock piece was on the Shangri-Las. I understood entirely where they were coming from as girls from Queens. They seemed like the people in my neighborhood to me. In college, I became a folkie, but I never quite lost that gutter side of me, that love of music that wasn’t liberation anthems but actually just sex. Fierce moves and big hair: Those were my values as a kid.
And what about rock and roll?
Well, of course I was a nerd. And I think it shows in the pictures of me. I did try to cover it up with hippie attire and long hair But I was always uncertain and quite nerdy. Rock and roll was a way to get beyond that.
As the book says, I had a lot of sexual issues when I was young. Parts of my sexuality were hidden from me, and I was able to project those hidden feelings onto the music. By adoring rock stars, and seeing rock and roll as a kind of magical, sexual force, I was able to experience things that I couldn’t experience any other way. Not that I didn’t have sex, but only with women — mostly with women. These are just hidden parts of my personality — I guess the homosexual parts. For me rock music was a way into a self I wasn’t fully aware of.
What the most memorable early piece you wrote about rock?
The third piece I did was the Rolling Stones. I got invited by them to a press event on a pier in the Hudson River. They hired a boat because they couldn’t stay in any hotel because of the fans. I watched fans attack Brian Jones, ripping his clothing and throwing themselves across the windshield of their limo. I got into their limo because Charlie Watts took mercy on me and shoehorned me in, even though I was too scared to ask any questions. I watched this spectacle in a state of complete astonishment.
How did things change as more drugs came into the scene?
I didn’t start out using drugs; I felt that if I did marijuana I would turn into Norman Bates. But a guy turned me on to it, and I realized I could function. In interviewing rock stars, you got stoned with them. First of all, there were no press agents, no publicists of any sort. It was you and the person. Rarely was there anybody else in the room. So getting stoned with them was a sort of rite of trust. If you didn’t get stoned with them, they would think you were straight — ironic, but the word meant “normal” back then. And then acid came later. The first time was with a musician, but not a well known one in Lake Tahoe. That’s when I learned to do drugs — with rock stars.
You famously wrote a critical review of Sgt. Pepper for the New York Times. But later you said you changed your mind.
I didn’t get it because the record wasn’t really rock. It didn’t belong in any genre that I could think of, so I didn’t know how to receive it. I think I was quite a puritan when I reviewed that album. I’m much less puritanical about music now, and I think so are most music listeners. And then the other thing: One of my speakers blew out, so when I got the press record, I only had one speaker. You’d put your head between the speakers, with the speakers right against your ears—no earphones. And you’d put it on peak volume. That’s how I heard most records that I reviewed. When one blew I didn’t hear the bass line very well, so it was even less like a rock record. It felt chaotic and cluttered, too showy and all of that. There are people who think I was right, and maybe I was. I don’t know. There’s no right and wrong about a piece of music. All there is, is the consensus.
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