Rock On

I wrote my first review for the College of Marin Times back in 1971. I had read an excerpt from Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book in Rolling Stone—or maybe Creem; one of those counter-culture rock magazines—that said if you want the record companies to send you free records, just write in and claim to be a reviewer. I thought, this is too good to be true. The record companies couldn’t be that gullible. I hadn’t written a thing so far. Why would they believe me?

So, I wrote a letter to about three or four record companies, claiming to be a rock critic…and they sent me free records! This is great! Abbie was right! But then, I had this crazy thought—prompted as much by guilt at having tricked them as anything else—that maybe I should actually review the albums. So, with no more knowledge of musical structure than any kid who had taken a year or two of piano and cornet lessons in junior high, I wrote some adjectival reviews.

And since I was enrolled at College of Marin, I figured, what better place to submit them than to the college newspaper, right? They must have been starved for material, because they printed them. Pretty soon, I’d be driving over to Winterland in San Francisco on the weekend, writing about the bands after I got back home, and a few days later, seeing the review in print. Free passes started to come my way. And that only made me bolder and more reckless, so I wrote to more record companies, got about four or five of them to send me stuff on a regular basis, and started submitting reviews outside the college circuit—all the way to the big time. Turned out, the big time (ie, Rolling Stone) didn’t want me. But Phonograph Record Magazine from Los Angeles and Zoo World down in Florida (two other music newspapers that just happened to look a lot like RS) did.

And thus was my career as rock critic for the second tier born. Eventually I got a job working at the local weekly Marin paper, the Pacific Sun, and parlayed this dubious talent into a bi-weekly music column. And after I did this for awhile, I turned to writing reviews of science fiction books, and got those companies to send me free stuff as well. Oh yeah, I had hit the mother lode, for sure.

I didn’t get a lot of fan letters, but after going to a Stevie Wonder concert I made the mistake of saying he rocked harder than the Rolling Stones, and got my first and only piece of hate mail. I learned a valuable lesson: if you want to get feedback, you need to piss people off. I generally reviewed bands and books that I liked. Negative reviews always seemed like a waste of time, and way too easy to write. Much more challenging to come up with new ways to praise something. And the more obscure, the better.

I started reviewing all the Euro rock bands for the Pacific Sun, groups that no one had heard of like the New Trolls and Achim Reichel & Machines. And wrote about lesser-known sf writers like George Alec Effinger and M. A. Foster.

By now I was deluged with freebies. Albums and books kept pouring in, and now the Pacific Sun gave me first pick of all the review copies that were coming into the office as well. I soon found myself mentally reviewing everything as I experienced it. I couldn’t go to a concert without creating an opening paragraph after the first 15 minutes of the show. I’d sit down at home to listen to a new band, and instead of being in the moment and just enjoying the music, I would start writing a review as I listened. It became obsessive.

So after doing this for about 15 years, I just stopped. Cold turkey. No more reviews. The free stuff gradually stopped coming. I had found that I tended to value the books and records I paid for more than the gratis copies anyway. The promo copies would pile up, and I’d be listening to Faust or Frank Zappa instead. The publishers would be sending me space operas, but I’d be curled up with a Barry Malzberg or a Robert Silverberg book.

It was around this time that I jumped ship from science fiction entirely, and started reading and collecting old mystery paperbacks. I didn’t review them. I just read them. Voraciously. Just for the pure hell of it. Which, in a roundabout way, leads me up to the present.

I’m still reading old mystery paperbacks. But I’ve turned those reviewing skills into tools I can use for publishing. Instead of mentally writing a review of every book I read, I ask myself…could this be the next Stark House book….should it? Does the book make me excited? Is it worth reprinting? If so, it goes onto the wish list of future Stark House books. I’m still playing favorites. It’s just that now I have the luxury of being able to pick and choose my favorites to share with you, the readers. Or in other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

—Greg Shepard


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