Zen and the Art of Criticism

Zen and the Art of Criticism

Written by Jay Jay French

Who hasn’t walked out of a show, turned to a friend and said, “that really sucked,” or, “that was amazing!”

Everyone has the capacity to be a critic.

My recent review of the 50th anniversary reissue of Workingman’s Dead, however positive, incurred the wrath of Grateful Dead fans who questioned my musical sensibilities.

In yet a different article I got a comment that basically was the equivalent of the old anti-Vietnam War protestors’ manifesto, “America, love it or leave it.” The comment basically said, “I don’t see your name on a list of best guitarists,” implying that I’m not qualified to judge guitar players.

The last time I checked, the only requirement to being a critic is:

Have an opinion!

I love writing. I wrote my first professional piece for Inc.com seven years ago and quickly got two more offers.

At first, my opinions about music and artists were not something I was comfortable writing about.

I know that may sound strange as I have a huge wealth of knowledge about all things music-related. [He’s not bragging; just stating fact. – Ed.] So much so, that I’ve started a new podcast which will be live by the time this article is published. It’s called “The French Connection: The Music Business and Beyond.” I also have an upcoming book titled Twisted Business: We’re Not Gonna Take It!

The truth is, however, that I doubt that many architectural critics have ever built a building, art critics painted a painting or music critics played an instrument. They’re just people with opinions and a love for the subjects who are willing to put it out there.

How’s this for irony: The first real newspaper (Newsday) critic to review a Twisted Sister concert, Wayne Robins, now writes for Copper. Wayne tore us apart at the time (1978) and the backlash from our fans was incredible, defending us savagely. Me? The only thing I cared about was that he spelled all our names correctly. I loved it. Wayne and I had a back and forth about it recently when I found out he was writing for Copper.

Paul Stanley from KISS is famous for saying that his mansion was paid for by bad reviews.

In my world, you develop a very thick skin and that may be one of the reasons that I feel really good about when I feel compelled to make comments about artists.

I say what I say because it’s how I feel.

I am unshakeable about my perceptions and I don’t care if one agrees or not.

When I was 15, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released and The New York Times critic Richard Goldstein panned it. It pretty much destroyed his career. He blasphemed!

Forget that years later, John Lennon called the album “rubbish” and Ringo has said that it was a fake concept album containing songs that had no connection, sewed together by George Martin and now revered as the first great concept album.

The point is that badly reviewing an icon can have interesting repercussions.

The Jimi Hendrix debut album Are You Experienced was reviewed by none other than Jon Landau, who panned it, but that didn’t seem to hit back at either Jon (who went on to become Bruce Springsteen’s manager) or Jimi.

Mind-blowing in 1967, and today.

Cream’s Wheels of Fire was so badly reviewed in Rolling Stone that Clapton famously broke up the group because of it.

The Magical Mystery Tour movie debacle a mere two months after the release of Sgt. Pepper’s made it easier to criticize the Beatles. However, the White Album, released eight months later in early 1968, brought the magic back in a very big way.

Somehow, none of the reviews I read back in the day really mattered as far as me liking or disliking an artist, but I did tend to buy anything that got a five-star rating in Rolling Stone. Sometimes I agreed, sometimes not. I just was more interested as to why a reviewer liked or didn’t like something.

I write what I love and what I don’t. It is way more fun than just to say, “it was OK.”

Fans of the Dead, Springsteen and Dylan in particular are fierce protectors of their artists. When considering the Beatles and the Stones, it’s more like being a Yankees fan. They are all monoliths. When a friend tells me he or she hates the Beatles I say, “please pass the salt.”

I mean really…what need is there to convince anyone of anything?

So here are some quick thumbnails that may cause some of you to boil over.

Springsteen: Before seeing Bruce and the E Street Band, I saw him twice as a special guest artist, once with Dave Edmunds and once at a Rainforest fundraiser in the 1990s. Both times his performance was strangely electrifying although I’m not a big fan of his voice.

The two times I saw him with his band, however, were very disappointing. So much so that I walked out before the end of both shows. The sound mix was terrible and he talked way too much and it bored me.

U2: Bono’s voice has always irritated me. He sounds like a hungry seal waiting to get fed a fish. The Edge? He says he’s not a good guitar player. He is correct.

Dylan: Love his voice and music. Worst concert I have seen in the last 10 years. A total embarrassment.

Rolling Stones: Made great albums from 1964 – 1972, good albums to 1980 and irrelevant ones since. From 1966 to 1972 (along with the Grateful Dead) maybe the world’s greatest live band. Today? The only reason they aren’t as awful as Dylan is that at least you can understand the words to the songs that they are totally screwing up.

Grateful Dead: Loved them from 1967 to 1972 as a one of the great live acts. Loved the drumming and bass playing. Garcia? Hated his guitar tone and ultimately tiring solos. At this point I had been “taken” by Eric, Jeff, Jimi, Jimmy, Terry Kath (Chicago) Mick Taylor, Albert King, Buddy Guy and Roy Buchanan. These players were very different. Most of the San Francisco bands, many of whom I really liked, never had guitar players that really stood out. I didn’t like the style or the guitar tones of Jorma, John Cipollina (Quicksilver), Leigh Stephens (Blue Cheer) or Jerry Miller (Moby Grape). I liked their respective bands, just not their playing styles.

Three exceptions: Steve Miller, Carlos Santana, John Fogerty. Real players as far as I was concerned.

John Fogerty at the Beacon Theatre, New York, 2013. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/SolarScott.

Leon Russell at the Fillmore East in 1971 with the Mad Dogs & Englishmen band was perhaps the greatest live show I have ever witnessed. Don Preston was on guitar.

Michael McDonald: The only voice worse than his is Celine Dion’s.

Clapton. I’ve seen him many times since 1967. Sometimes he’s good, sometimes he’s boring and sometimes he’s transcendent.

Leon Russell, 2009, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Carl Lender.

I saw the Cream reunion at the Royal Albert Hall in 2005. I phoned into an American radio station live from the event with this review: It wasn’t Cream, it was skim milk. Three old guys who dressed like they just came back from the betting window at a Miami dog track.

Flight to the UK for the show? $1,000.

Price of the ticket to the reunion $500.

Hearing Cream songs played through Fender amps and guitars? Worthless.

The last Beacon Theatre show Roy Orbison played in 1988: Astonishing.

Roy Orbison in 1965. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jac. de Nijs/Anefo.

Yusuf aka Cat Stevens Beacon Theater 2016: Astonishing.

Elton John: I’ve seen many times since 1972, including a private show in the Waldorf Astoria ballroom in 1990. In 2018 at Madison Square Garden he was incredible.

Earth, Wind & Fire at the Beacon in 2019: the most fun I’ve had at a show in years. Super, super, super tight. Just like James would have done!

The two shows I didn’t go to but I wish I did:

The famous 1964 T.A.M.I. show with The Stones, James Brown, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and other greats. James Brown puts on the singular greatest high-energy performance in history. Watch it on YouTube. It terrified Jagger (and rightly so).


The 1966 NME (New Musical Express) annual awards show 1966 with this lineup: The Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Roy Orbison, the Yardbirds, Small Faces, Dusty Springfield…


The New York Dolls:

I have been quoted many times about how great they looked but how terribly they played. I saw them a lot in 1972. Each time I hoped for a better show, each time…awful! Finally, on one night at the reopened Fillmore East in late December 1972, they did a show with Teenage Lust and Eric Emerson and The Magic Tramps.

They were very good that night.

I saw them about 10 times after (my friend Peter Jordan had become the bass player behind the stage as Arthur Kane could barely stand up by that point). Not good.

In 2009 the Dolls played a special show at the John Varvatos store (former site of CBGB). They were very good. Why? All the band members, except David Johansen and Syl Sylvain, were replaced by pro musicians.

The New York Dolls.

When Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese teamed up for the Vinyl TV series in 2016, a large part of the show was the dramatization of the Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center in the fall of 1972. Having been to those shows, I found the depiction of the fans’ enthusiasm as totally fake, but the band sounded really good. There was no way it was the Dolls playing these songs. I was right. All the guitar parts were played by an incredible musician I used to manage, Johnny Gale.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame:

No, Twisted Sister are not in it.

Members of Toto have recently said that they are hated by the R&RHOF.


I think they are Metallica compared to how TS is seen.

One would think that, as a New York kid growing up in the 1960s and buying every 5-star album in Rolling Stone, I would like how the Hall makes its selections. The answer is: no. I knew early on about how the politics and control of the organization by Jann Wenner and Sire Records president Seymour Stein (with an occasional nod to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun) would affect the choices.

I knew what they considered hip was all about.

It surely wasn’t about a Long Island band, even though we lived an American dream by working our ass off 10 years just to get a record deal, then selling millions of records worldwide, becoming one of the first mega-artists on MTV, and then having one of our songs, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” become the number one protest song around the world. Our band became 10 times more successful than that, playing stadiums around the world and performing over 9,000 shows from 1973 – 2016. We had the two most used and licensed songs (“I Wanna Rock” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”) from the 1980s.

But we never were the critics’ darlings.

Neither was KISS, but until they got in I never respected the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at all. Why? I’m not a big KISS fan but they are rock and roll and are probably more responsible for inspiring rock and roll dreams than any other American band. Rock and roll music is pop music. To intellectualize it is where the problem comes in. And it discounts REO Speedwagon, Kansas, Ted Nugent and lots of other bands that had a huge impact on the popular culture but were never hip.


Us, Mötley Crüe, Judas Priest, Poison, Iron Maiden. The list goes on…

These bands aren’t in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? It’s BS.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/KissBoy25, cropped to fit format.

Back to Copper home page