Making a Career of It
Gathering my thoughts about the Ellen Willis and Paul Nelson collections for the Barnes & Noble Review column published before Thanksgiving as "Pioneer Days," I began backgrounding compulsively as I invariably do. And so I pulled from my pending shelves a quasi-collection I'd begun and then put down in 2009: Robert Hilburn's Cornflakes With John Lennon. Given that I already had two meaty books to review, I didn't have room even to mention it in my essay; 400 words over my ideal length, although the online gods I'm accountable to are understanding about such peccadillos, I didn't even have space to quote any of the prose I wanted to make a stylistic point of. So I thought I'd give Hilburn more than a mention here.
For a long time, Hilburn was the most powerful rock critic in the country. He and I have been friendly for many years, largely because he's such an engaged and agreeable guy, and ultimately those qualities are the secret of his success. Though it's tempting to attribute his power totally to his position as chief critic at the biggest paper in the capital of the music industry, the L.A. Times, that really doesn't explain it. The book makes clear that he was aware of who he was expected to please when. But he's also at some pains to point out times he didn't. And though lots of people I know have resented him over the years, I've never heard anyone characterize him as Machiavellian, interested in power for its own sake. His secret was his genuine enthusiasm for the most high-minded kinds of conventional rock--a basic taste set he shared with Nelson, except that Nelson was much pickier--and his appetite for personal contact with the people who made it. This Nelson also shared, only without Hilburn's social skills and indefatigable energy. Hilburn was the biz's idea of what a quality critic should be.
The reason I'd originally stopped reading Cornflakes With John Lennon is that neither Hilburn's prose style nor his critical insights were worthy of his enthusiasm. What the best daily critics do is convey basic information to the general reader in a way that will also offer some kind of new perspective to the more knowledgeable fan. As far as I'm concerned, this means avoiding generalized boilerplate like "looking bravely at their own deepest fears and grandest dreams," like "Jerry Lee has always been as brash as he is talented," like "you couldn't deny the artistry of Cube's words and Dre's exquisite beats," like "a raspy, soulful voice that captured beautifully the poignant quality . . ." I wasn't learning enough, so I moved on.
I'm glad I picked the book up again, though. Cornflakes With John Lennon isn't a collection per se. It's a memoir of Hilburn's career that relies heavily and sometimes verbatim on his previously published words. And its cumulative effect is actually damned impressive. Because he was who he was as a person as well as a professional, including a workaholism that he implies ruined his first marriage and I'm not convinced he ever entirely controlled, Hilburn achieved unmatched access and conducted more major rock-star interviews than anyone ever. And these interviews were never fluff jobs--they examined artistic choices and artistic meanings. It's true and regrettable that he had no taste for pop proper even when the artist was as slippery deep as Madonna. Nor did he feel funk's exquisite beats. And he was too drawn to heroes, which means the book is shot through with Springsteen, who he was on early, and Bono, who once told him, "Look, I'm sick of Bono, and I am Bono." Nevertheless, he was always and still remains not just a believer, but a critical one. When you choose to make a life out of arts journalism, that's plenty--in its own way, more than either Nelson or Willis found it worth their while to do.