Arts Remembrance: Be the Rock Star — A Tribute to Jules Siegel
Legendary music journalist Jules Siegel died of a heart attack on November 17, 2012 at the age of 77. There was no “New York Times” obituary, no mention in “Rolling Stone.” But to me, he was a rock star.
By Adam Ellsworth
I learned a lot from the writings of Jules Siegel, but I learned even more from the time I spent talking with him.
Jules Siegel was laughing very hard. I had apparently just said something extremely funny to him, though I hadn’t attempted to tell a joke. All I said was that I wanted to be a rock journalist.
“Why do you want to be a rock journalist,” he asked between guffaws.
“Uhm, ah, you know, I . . .”
“I’m sorry,” Jules said, cutting me off and still laughing. “I don’t want to . . . Look, let me start here. Don’t be a rock journalist.”
“Okay,” I responded. By this point, I was laughing too. Jules hadn’t actually convinced me to change career goals, but I had to admit “I want to be a rock journalist” is kind of a funny thing to say to someone, even when that someone is responsible for writing some of the great pieces of the rock journalism genre. It’s also pretty limiting. After all, Jules himself wrote about far more than just rock and roll.
“Don’t categorize yourself,” he told me. “If you want to be a journalist, be a journalist.”
Once the laughter died down, Jules talked for a good 25 minutes about some of the ups and downs of his writing career and how hard it is to make a living as any kind of a writer, let alone a “rock journalist.” He even suggested that I try to write for television. I’d make much more money that way, he said, and I wouldn’t be stuck sucking up to rock stars. In closing, he said the following:
“Be the rock star. Don’t be the rock journalist.”
Jules Siegel died of a heart attack on November 17, 2012 at the age of 77. To me, he was a rock star.
Jules and I spoke for the first time in October 2011. At the time, I was a first semester graduate student majoring in journalism at Boston University, and I had tracked Jules down so I could interview him and write about his life and work for a class assignment. He was living in Cancun, as he had been since the early 1980s, so we spoke on the phone. It was during this first phone conversation that we shared our laugh over my desire to be a rock journalist.
Before I decided to write about Jules, I had only read one story by him. His “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” was included in an anthology of rock and roll writing I bought while I was an undergrad, and I immediately loved it. “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” is the account of Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson and his soon-to-be-abandoned work on the album Smile. The story was first published in Cheetah in October 1967. The magazine, of which Jules served as editor, was short-lived, but “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” has endured.
When Brian Wilson released his solo, non-Beach Boys version of Smile in 2004, David Leaf wrote in the linear notes that Jules’s story “just might be the touchstone story in the creation of the ‘Smile’ fantasia.” Indeed, anyone who writes about this era of The Beach Boys uses Jules’s story as a foundational text. After all, Jules was there at the creation, spending two months with Wilson at home and in the studio. A few hours after I spoke to Jules for the first time, he recorded himself reading “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” so the audio could be included as part of e-publisher The Atavist’s re-release of the story as an e-book. A week later, a few hours before Jules and I had our second phone conversation, the e-book was released, and an excerpt was posted on the Rolling Stone website.
That “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” got a second life at the same time I was getting to know and write about Jules was a happy coincidence. I was glad that the self-described “formerly almost-famous writer” was getting some recognition for his most famous work. But Jules was so much more than “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” One of the things I enjoyed most about writing about Jules was having the excuse to explore so many of the other stories he wrote. While he was primarily a writer of journalism and non-fiction, Jules wrote fiction as well. His short story “Déjà Vu” was published in Esquire in 1970 and anthologized in that same year’s Best American Short Stories. That same year, “Family Secrets,” the non-fiction story of Jules’s parents and his formative years, was published in The New American Review (“That was the single greatest story of my career,” he told me)
“Who is Thomas Pynchon and Why is He Taking Off With My Wife,” was published in Playboy in 1977 and is about exactly what the title says it’s about. In certain circles, this article is far better known than “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” It is certainly more personal, as it describes Jules’s friendship with the reclusive writer Thomas Pynchon (the two of them went to Cornell together) and the affair that Pynchon had with Jules’s second wife.
As brilliant as these and other pieces are, for me, it still comes back to Jules’s writing on rock and roll. After all, I finished grad school in January 2013, which I think makes things official: despite Jules’s very solid advice on the subject, I am now a rock journalist.
Back when Jules and I spoke for the first time, he was quick to point out that he was not a rock journalist. As illustrated above, Jules wrote on many topics. His rock writing constitutes a very small portion of his work. He certainly wasn’t a rock critic. He didn’t write record reviews or concert reviews. But his writings on rock and roll are important, and he had no problem admitting to me, or endorsing the idea, that his writings, especially in the mid-60s, treated rock and roll with a respect that few other writers at the time dared.
“I read a story by Tom Wolfe in Esquire about the guys who make the signs in Las Vegas,” Jules told me. “They considered themselves artists and Wolfe accepted them as artists and he treated them with the respect that you’d give any artist.”
Jules told me that he combined this idea with his knowledge that throughout history, the principal artists have almost always been commercial artists, and his style of writing about rock and roll was born. Jules accepted rock artists like Bob Dylan (who he profiled for the Saturday Evening Post in 1966) and Brian Wilson as artists, because they thought they were artists. If retailers and record company men saw them as a fad product, that was fine, but it wasn’t the way Jules was going to treat them. In short, Jules treated rock and roll, and the people who created it, seriously. Now everybody writes about rock and roll that way. Jules was one of the people who did it first.
“Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” is Jules’s most famous example of rock journalism, but I think his most revolutionary is his article “The Big Beat.” It appeared in the Playboy-esque Cavalier magazine in 1965 and is one of the earliest writings I’ve ever seen on the development of rock and roll, from slaves singing in chains on their way to America to Bob Dylan “going electric” at the Newport Folk Festival.
Jules described the article to me as “a sociological and psychological explanation of the youth culture in terms of the music that was being played and written.” If that description makes “The Big Beat” sound very smart, you’re right. If it makes the article sound very boring, you’re wrong. The writing is electric, funny, and, yes, serious, but not so much so that you can’t enjoy it. Jules may have treated rock and roll seriously, but that doesn’t mean he forgot that at its core, it’s supposed to be fun! In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, books began to emerge on the “history” of rock and roll. These books may have been more complete (i.e. longer) than “The Big Beat,” but they certainly weren’t as entertaining, and they were by no means any more accurate.
I finished my paper on Jules in mid-November 2011. I’m happy to report I received an “A.” If you’re interested in reading it, you can find it here. It’s hardly the greatest piece of journalism ever written, but it is a more fleshed out version of Jules’s story than I’ve written here.
In the months after I handed in my assignment, Jules and I kept in touch via email and social media. Jules was far savvier than I when it came to technology. He even got me to sign up for Google+, a social media platform that never quite took off, but if it had, Jules would have been right there for it. In fact, it was only after I realized that I hadn’t “e-heard” from Jules in a few weeks—no Tweets, no Facebook “Likes,” no emails—that I started to think that something might be wrong. After a little bit of digging, I found that my suspicions were correct, and that Jules had died more than a month earlier. There was no New York Times obituary, no mention in Rolling Stone.
In the Preface to Jules’s self-published, 2010 book, Mad Laughter: Fragments of a Life in Progress, he wrote, “It gets very dark sometimes (3:19 a.m., right now), you know, when people look at your work and say, ‘You realize that you will be famous after your death?’” He was specifically writing about his forays into book art, a part of his career I haven’t even mentioned here. But I think that that line could apply to any of his work. Now that Jules’s death has come, I have no idea if he will become “famous.” I do know that he wasn’t as famous, or as recognized, in his life as he should have been. He was a great writer. There’s nothing else to say except for that simple fact.
As for me, and my insistence on being a rock journalist, I like to think that I haven’t completely ignored Jules’s advice. Yes, I still worship rock stars a bit more than is probably healthy. I can’t help myself. But I also like to think of myself as a rock star, just like Jules said I should. No matter what I’m writing about, the blank page is my territory, and nobody gets preferential treatment. Nobody gets a free ass kissing. And when I want to write about something other than rock and roll, I do. I do what I want when I want. I’m a writer. I’m a journalist. I’m a rock star. Nobody owns me. Nobody tells me what to do. I had always felt this, but until I got to know Jules Siegel, for however briefly I knew him, I didn’t realize it was actually possible. Now I know. Thank you Jules.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has an MS in journalism from Boston University and a BA in literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.