It would be an understatement to say Anthony DeCurtis’ impact on music writing is vast.
He is currently a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, for which he has written since the 1980s. He is the author of “In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work” and “Rocking My Life Away: Writing About Music and Other Matters.”
He won a Grammy for an essay he contributed to the Eric Clapton “Crossroads” box set and is currently working on the liner notes for a John Mellencamp box set. He also teaches a course at the University of Pennsylvania called The Arts and Popular Culture.
He has interviewed everyone from David Bowie to Eminem, but the tables were turned as Anthony DeCurtis talked to WEEKEND about his life and career.
On his beginnings
DeCurtis started out as a writer in the 1970s, after he earned his doctorate from IU in 1980 in American Literature.
He inherited a gig from his friend at the Bloomington Herald-Telephone, now the Herald-Times. DeCurtis wrote record and concert reviews for the paper and saw acts like Elvis Costello, The Rolling Stones and Patti Smith during his time in Bloomington.
The 58-year-old Manhattan native said Bloomington was hung over from the relaxed and reflective 1960s lifestyle.
“(Bloomington) was like a really smart and interesting rural camp,” he said.
Faculty-student relationships were the norm, as was pot-smoking, sex and skinny dipping, he said. He said he felt a sense of community with his peers, who would often pile into his apartment to catch the latest “Saturday Night Live” and listen to records he brought back from New York.
“It was a good time for music, and Bloomington was a good place to be,” he said.
On music today
That’s not to say DeCurtis is stuck in the past. Although he said it’s impossible for an album to change his life at this point, he is a fan of modern music.
“In all seriousness, there’s almost never been a better time for music,” he said.
He’s into artists like Conor Oberst and She & Him, among other singer-songwriter types. The critic also likes hip-hop, whose influence and attitude he likened to rock ’n’ roll.
He admitted modern rock bands just don’t seem rocking anymore and couldn’t name a current rock sex symbol. He recalled the way The Rolling Stones, who he said is probably his favorite band, made him feel. He described the band’s sound as subversive, black and dangerous.
He said hip-hop, until recently, conveyed the same direct attitude, sexiness and grittiness.
When it comes to reviewing music, DeCurtis keeps an open mind. He doesn’t initially research an artist but listens to an album throughout his day to understand it.
After he gets a feel for the music is when he seeks information on the artist.
DeCurtis knows how to take an album for what it’s worth and can find the good in anything from a Lil Wayne song to “The Backyardigans,” a TV show he watches with his three-year-old daughter.
“I want to enjoy it. ... My aesthetic is pleasure,” he said.
He said there are downsides to the abundance of music in the digital era though.
He said music is more fragmented now, as it would be unlikely to find a common artist between any of his students’ iPods. He said he couldn’t pinpoint what it takes for a band to get recognized, valuing the importance of YouTube, Rolling Stone, radio, television and so on.
DeCurtis said all artists are in the same boat, trying to get their music out. He said even a star like John Mellencamp doesn’t know what to do at times.
“It’s a much trickier and complicated formula now,” DeCurtis said.
DeCurtis is both optimistic and reluctant toward modern journalism. He said it’s easy to get a job if you’re willing and cheap, as he can practically see tumbleweeds in the offices of newspapers and magazines.
He has a high standard in the quality of writing, both in what he reads and writes. He is often disappointed with online media’s hastily edited stories in its need for immediacy. But he said every age faces its own problems, adding that writers in the 1970s were frequently self-indulgent.
Because he has such a standard for what he reads, he always strives for a high literary value in his own work.
He hung out with George Harrison at his home and spent a day with Jay-Z, but DeCurtis has maintained his pure love for music while defying rock critic stereotypes.
“I’m genuinely gratified for what I’ve been able to do,” he said.