DEAD MAN TALKING: Q&A With Tom Moon, Author Of 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die


[Illustration by ALEX FINE]

meAVATAR2.jpgBY JONATHAN VALANIA Full disclosure: Tom Moon got me into the business, hiring me on as a freelance music writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he served as pop music critic par excellence from 1988 to 2004. During that time he was also a regular contributor to GQ, Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe, Esquire and he is currently a music critic for NPR’s All Things Considered. Three and a half years ago he began work on a frighteningly ambitious record buyer’s guide called 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, published by Workman Publishing in late 2008. Part treasure map of the past, part tip sheet for what-comes-next, the book attempts to boil the vast and enchanted spectrum of recorded music down to a thousand titles you really need to add to your bucket list before you kick it. Spanning the yawning chasms of pop, rock, folk, jazz, classical, world and experimental musics, and illuminated by Moon’s impeccable taste, vast knowledge and immaculate prose, 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die not only ensures Moon’s legacy as an enduring critic, it may well become the definitive buyer’s guide for both newbies and serious music aficionados alike.

In the time since Moon undertook this herculean task, the infrastructure of music and journalism has changed dramatically in the wake of the Internet’s game-changing influence on life was we currently know it. He had always assumed that when he was done with the book he would go back to music journalism/criticism full-time, but now that he’s had a chance to consider his options, he’s not so sure there is a place for guys like him in the unfolding new media landscape. Now that, my friends, is a goddamn shame. And here’s why, earlier this decade, I have been told, Bob Dylan, notoriously press-shy and interview-averse, made an offer to NPR that was as tantalizing as it was telling: He would sit for an interview on Fresh Air if, and only if, Tom Moon conducted the interview. It never happened for one reason or another, but that’s almost beside the point. He got the nod, he was in the circle of trust. Voices with that kind of cred will never be silenced, just as music criticism will survive the death of its institutions — and so, too, will Tom Moon. Long may he rock.

PHAWKER: How did you arrive at the concept of the book, and tell me about the process of bringing it to fruition?

TOM MOON:  It wasn’t my idea. The publisher had some success with a book called A Thousand Places To See Before You Die and was looking to expand that series. They cast a pretty wide net of across a bunch of different disciplines; they did a bunch of research about movies, and discovered there were already too many movie guides. They didn’t know what to do about music, and didn’t know what to do about books. When they actually contacted me my first thought was “Well that’s just absurd.” I loved the idea on one hand, but on the practical level I’m not sure unless you’re going to have a committee of music scholars making the choices for you how you actually arrive at the ultimate desert island hits list or the ultimate absolutely essential must hear recordings list. I voiced that concern with the publishing house and we talked about it a lot. At one point we discussed 1000_recordings.jpgassembling a panel of experts. I was open to that, but they ultimately decided that they wanted a singular voice. They had done a lot of market research about what they thought a book like this might do and who it might serve. They kept coming back with something interesting I haven’t seen talked about too much—the field of music journalism and music publishing is pretty rife with things for the expert. There’s plenty of books who will tell someone whose already pretty obsessive about music more about a given artist — I’m thinking about Barney Hoskins’ new Tom Waits book — and there was less about the equipping of a young listener. When they told me that I was like, “You know, that’s right.” There’s some value in considering the audience for this to be not a music snob at all. In fact, at this point in culture where you can get anything and everything you want from the Internet, it might actually be a helpful thing to point people to some stuff that in my age group is assumed that you know, like The Beatles, but actually to subsequent generations may not be so obvious. That was sort of the way I started. I started with the idea that I was going to help equip someone who was just a plain curious listener.

The beginning phase was just a lot of list making. I made lists of everything I could think of, I consulted a lot of different lists that were already out there — every Mojo Best-Of list that was ever done, Q, all the British magazines — they do so many of them. On top of that I did research where I just threw out an e-mail to a select group of friends — you know, ‘what absolutely has to be here?’ I went back through old interviews, years of talking to artists; almost every interview we would talk about some records they thought were important. I had help from an intern and he went through some of my transcripts and found interesting recommendations that I wouldn’t have thought of. The list as it grew became a little bit unwieldy in terms of actually getting your mind around it. I put it on the excel spreadsheet and it got to where it was over 2,000 and you couldn’t remember what was in the top 100, and things got listed twice, and it was sort of a mess in a sense. There was a certain level of let’s just go out and get a bunch of artists and get the wisdom of as many people as we can. And also think about it in terms of this listener whose sort of a newbie. So I started writing entries, the no-brainer ones, while I was compiling the list. I knew, for example, that I would have to have [Miles Davis’] Kind of Blue, so some of those ones that were just sort of automatic, and the obvious ones I wrote first. That ended up being a problem because some things I thought were pretty obvious didn’t make the book — that wound up happening to about 100 entries. As I was cutting I was realizing my definition of what was essential and what I thought this new listener would have to know changed greatly, I mean, I worked on it for three and a half years.

PHAWKER:  So you cast a very wide net, and then how did you boil it down to get to your magic number?

TOM MOON:  Kind of the same way, I mean, in a lot of cases it was just pure listening. Like I would go back and, for example the Beach Boys, the automatic thing was Pet Sounds, but for a while I didn’t know if I would do only singles, you know like what’s the right way to do a book like this, since everyone on the Internet is thinking in terms of digital tracks — should it be digital tracks? Should it be a full album? Should it be compilations? In the course of the canvassing, I put everything possible on the big list. Some of it just weeded itself out. One that was somewhat controversial was no Billy Joel; I actually went and listened to The Stranger and 52nd Street and Glass Houses and a couple of Billy Joel records in pieces, and came to the conclusion: “You know what? These records are flawed.” And as great as some of the songwriting is, as a full album experience I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t find one that really said it and sort of twisted myself in knots, and finally was like, ‘you know what, there’s sort of a reason that this is not to be found, and these records are in fact somewhat dated, maybe very dated.’ So it was a lot of winnowing and a lot of listening; the listening was incredibly interesting. I was starting to feel about The Beach Boys, with Pet Sounds, sort of a no-brainer-automatic-rock-critic-choice, and I decided I really wanted to hear some of the other records around it. As I did that, I became more convinced that Pet Sounds really is the best document.

Sometimes what you think of as the automatic choice ends up not being that way. For example, another one is Tom Petty, you know I thought ‘I’ll have one Petty record or another,’ and the one I liked best was Damn The Torpedoes. But when I listened to it, the same thing happened to me that happened to me the last time I saw him live which is, “These are great songs for a minute, but they get a little dreary at the three minute mark.” You know it’s weird, they don’t hold up the way you would think they would. So it was an incredible learning experience in terms of checking your head and revisiting what you think you know, and then also interfacing with what you don’t know. You think you have somebody pretty well fixed in your sights, even something you’ve heard as much as Steely Dan and the Beatles or The Minutemen, and then you go deeper into it and you really listen to it again thinking about this person that’s just going to be discovering it for the first time and ask yourself: ‘what is essential about this? why this is something they should have in their sights?’ — it changes the way you listen almost. It was really good for me as a critic to just get away from what’s new and really focus on what deserves to at least be considered for the time capsule, knowing all the while it’s a very idiosyncratic list and it’s because they had decided to have one person decide instead of a committee, that it was never going to be satisfying to everyone. All I could ever say is I made a good faith effort. I listened to a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about. I’d say about 40 to 50 percent of the book was stuff that I didn’t know about — and that’s a lot. When I was in music school I studied classical music, I read scores and I know how to do that, and I certainly took some basic appreciation courses in the classics but I never really interfaced with that stuff. So, naturally, I had to have a guru and that person was David Patrick Stearns [classical music critic for] The Inquirer, who was incredibly helpful and unbelievably generous with his record collection, and also very smart about what he would say to me and wouldn’t be like, “You gotta have this version of this,” but he would say, “You know, the consensus version is this but I want you to also hear this version.” One of the reasons I took on the project was to learn about classical music; I always wanted to know more about it and hear it and be able to really process it. I had no use for most of the classical music critics because most of them talk in code. But I wanted to get at the information itself, and this offered me a great way to do that.

PHAWKER: Tell us about your evolution from musician to music critic to where you are now. Where did you grow up? Did you grow up in Florida? I know you lived down there for a period of time.

TOM MOON: No I grew up outside of D.C. in Virginia. My bio’s pretty straight up; I started playing saxophone as a young person; my father died when I was two, so I was raised by my mom with my sisters. She was a single mom at a time when it was tough to be a single mom. She remarried when I was 10, and the stepbrothers and sisters were all jocks and I was just then getting into music. I had a rough adolescence in that sense. I was very lucky, there was a guy — who the book was dedicated to, along with my wife and daughter — who was my high school music teacher, his name was George Horan; he was the only band director in Fairfax County who refused to field a marching band. He said, “This is not music, I’m not doing it.” He took a stand and as a result, his program incredibly good, we won lots of titles, but more than that, he was a trumpet player and his motto, the thing I remember seeing on a yearbook the year I got to the school was, “I am not a music teacher. I am a musician who teaches.” I didn’t take it to heart then, but did subsequently. He was a real character; an albino white haired guy whose face used to get all red when he played trumpet. He was an incredible musician and he inspired you, not with theater exactly, but he had his line of what was important to do as a musician and if you couldn’t cut that, you just couldn’t work. He would make fun of you and ridicule. In many ways, I had lots of music experiences after that but the toughest and most intense rehearsals I ever had were in high school. He sort of saved my life in a sense that there was a place for me to put my energy into, when things were wacky in my family life and everything else. He taught a lot of us to love music and to respect music. So after that I went to music school at the University of Miami, moved to Florida, played in lots of bands, played in big bands, played a lot of weddings and bah mitzvahs, worked on cruise ships for a while, played crazy gigs in South Florida, there were a lot of those at the time, and backed up to a lot of great people. I played behind Tony Bennett, Gladys Knight and The Pips, and a lot of acts that would come through. In the wintertime, the big hotels would have like ballroom show nights. So three nights a week you’d have a gig playing alongside Joan Rivers on the stage. But they would also have music people; they would have Ben Vereen, we would play Ben’s show a lot back in the day. So, I had a lot of professional experience while I was in college and then after college. I was hired by Maynard Ferguson, I was on the road with his band for a year. I played in a rock band in South Carolina eight months before that.

PHAWKER:  What band was that? R.E.M.?

TOM MOON:  Ha, I wish. It was a band called Freeze Warning and it was like a five-piece band that played the college frat circuit north of Virginia to south. We would roll into Atlanta and play two nights of frat parties at Georgia Tech. Most of it was like INXS, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and stuff like that. It was definitely like a cover band with a couple of originals.

PHAWKER: What is this, like early ’80s we’re talking about?

TOM MOON: Yeah this was probably ’84, ’83. I graduated from school in ’83, I spent most of ’84 with Maynard.

PHAWKER:  I read a Timothy Leary bio last summer, and it turns out Maynard Ferguson spent a lot of time at Leary’s compound at Millbrook back in the day. Did he ever talk about that?

TOM MOON:  He did. Maynard’s journey is interesting because not only that, but he was hooked up with all gumby.jpgkinds of experimental drug ties in that era. He’s almost a caricature of things people did in the ’60s. After having his mind blown by all that stuff, he spent a lot of time in the UK and he played on rock records. He was sort of like this elder held in high esteem in the UK for a bit. Literally a year after The Beatles go to India, he goes to India. His guru was the same guy who advised the guy who created Gumby and Pokey. He loved to tell that story because he was always thinking Gumby was on the verge of a comeback. Manyard was a total character.

PHAWKER:  Okay so getting back to the narrative arc. You’re playing the frat circuit.

TOM MOON:  Right. Eventually I came back to Florida with the idea that I would just sort of work as a musician in Florida. I taught jazz history at the University of Miami, and played gigs, and was working on a record of my own at the time. I worked on developing as a musician and I started writing; I had done a little bit of writing for the school newspaper at the University of Miami, but just as a freshman. As soon as I started getting gigs, I stopped writing music reviews. For some reason when I moved back there I started reading the Miami Herald and I had complaints about the way they were covering music. I wrote them letters and after a while the arts editor sends me back a letter saying, “You think you can do better,” and actually invited me to do something that would never happen in journalism today, which was they sent their person to a series of jazz concerts at a hotel or club and they published his reviews, but then they asked me to go the same night and see the same thing and write my own review and they would look at them the next day. That’s how I got started.

PHAWKER:  Did they hire you on then?

TOM MOON: No they didn’t hire me straight away; I was a stringer for like a year and a half, two years. It seems unbelievable to think that in 1985 you could actually work for a major daily newspaper with no journalism experience, but in fact that’s what happened. I was incredibly lucky because the editor I worked for at the time had come from Rolling Stone and was a very smart woman and she was very patient; she taught me how to do this. Her name is Jane Karr; she is now at the New York Times or was, I sort of lost track of her. Anyway, she was very patient and taught me a ton and did it in a great spirit. I was finally hired there and worked there for a couple of years. At that time, both the Herald and the Inquirer were both owned by Knight-Ridder, and there was a vacancy in Philadelphia for this job. I was told I was not eligible because I didn’t have five years of hard news experience covering cops and courts.

PHAWKER:  That was required for their pop music critic?

TOM MOON: No, that was required for every hire at the Inquirer as far as I can remember. It was five years of basic news experience.  Which, you know, look where that got them. So the first time they said absolutely not, and almost nine months later, ten months later the position was still vacant and they brought me up, interviewed me, and I was hired in June of ’88.

PHAWKER:  And you were at the Inquirer from 1988 until..?

TOM MOON: Until 2004.

PHAWKER:  I wonder now if you could speak to the evolution of newspapers as well as the role of the music critic over that time period?

TOM MOON: That’s a big question. When you think about criticism now as it exists as practice on the Internet, robert_palmer_feature.jpgin blogs, in Pitchfork, wherever you wanna look, what you realize is it is fundamentally a different enterprise from criticism as practiced in newspapers. I remember reading the New York Times in the late ’80s when Robert Palmer was still alive and writing and getting an education: The context was nailed, the critical appraisal was beautifully allusive and clear, there was none of his own story in it, you know he didn’t feel compelled to tell me about himself; he told me about this artist’s life and past. And John Pareles does the same thing, you know god bless him, because there is something about that that I think is really important, and it’s gone now. It just doesn’t exist. But it was easier at that time to be that kind of critic because first of all, there wasn’t as much stuff, and there wasn’t this sort of running comment at the bottom of the screen of pop culture that was a picture of what was hot, and this sort of instant fame wasn’t really that apparent yet. It seemed like if you heard something as a critic in 1990 — you know if you happened to be in Seattle at the beginning of Sub Pop — and you heard this music and thought it was important and what comes next, you could write about it without having to build a case with editors for its importance. I think you would actually have to do that more now. I don’t think it would be a thing where you come back from some show and go, “Oh my god this is the next thing,” and give me 35 inches and let me write about it. That just doesn’t seem to happen, so that’s one huge change. When you read the 120-word record reviews in Rolling Stone you’re not really getting criticism, you’re not really getting this idea of where an artist fits, who his influences are, what formed this record. I know I sound like an old man, but I think there’s actual value in the appraisal of work, and the critic seeing himself as part of a protracted discussion and maybe that plays out over many years. There’s a back and forth, and in some cases an artists engages that and in some cases they don’t, but the idea that the critic plays a roll in helping shape the understanding of the work and the appreciation of the work. The kind of writing that happens on blogs is not that.

PHAWKER: There was a time when being a music critic was, in large part, just describing the sound of music to people that could not hear it. And now basically you can stream everything, hear everything all at once. So that role is no longer necessary. But at the same time, there is just so much stuff there, just such a mass of everything that’s come before is now available and at the same time new things are released at such a high velocity. Would not the need for someone to sort of sherpa you through all of this be even more paramount?

TOM MOON:  You would think, and especially if that someone had sort of an internal database of what they already heard, and was able to draw connections and make comparisons and shine the flashlight in a way that would help someone say, who knows R.E.M., to discover someone they might like that they don’t know. That rem84_1.jpgfunction should not have changed, and that really should be what we’re doing. I feel like in some cases we are able to pull that off, and sometimes not; it’s definitely more difficult. I also think that when your goal is sort of to reflect on yourself and explain the record in context of your reaction to it, that is a different mission and use of a different set of muscles than it does to address the work on its own. Not to say that we all have to sit around and surmise what the artist intends, but with, say, the Wilco record, there is a certain level of having heard the Wilco catalog and having followed them for a period time, you sort of know a little bit about where they live artistically. I think that’s important, especially in a case of a band like that, that’s made a contribution over a period of time — you know, where is it different? Where are they extending what they do? Where are they not? Those things, especially in tandem with the Internet where I’m going to assume as a blogger, whenever I’m going to write about Wilco, someone can be hearing at the same time as reading what I’m writing, which is a great thing. The best thing we can do as critics is sort of aid in the discovery, and I think the question that still has to shake out is what’s the best way to do that. Is it with a very confessional first person style of writing that is interesting, lively sometimes, but ultimately not that relevant to the discussion of a work of art? Or is it something a little more about what we were talking about before, traditional criticism or traditional arts writing.

PHAWKER:  Do you foresee that finding a new home, aside from writing books?

TOM MOON: Well, I hope so because I really believe that there is a contribution that people who care about music and studied it for a while can make is that different from the contribution of say, a really smart DJ. You would hope that there would be somewhere to do it in the culture but I’m not optimistic right now. Based on looking around and finishing the sort of promotional stuff for the book I’m looking around and going, “I’m not sure I can work anymore.”

PHAWKER: It’s true, all the magazines are closing and everything that’s open is just getting glossier and internet_1_1.jpgdumbed down.

TOM MOON: And meanwhile, the work that replaces it on the Internet is not necessarily at a level of intelligence or a level of depth that allows you to accomplish anything. If you’re using it to send out messages about music, or be an actual tour guide for someone who discovers music, there are not that many places where you can do that and be a sober, adult human being about it.

PHAWKER: Speaking of industries evolving in depressing ways, tell me a little bit about the realities of book publishing, from the little bit of dabbling I did with it, I actually found that the economics are really depressing, that it’s an enormous amount of effort to research, write and publish a book and not much pay off.

TOM MOON: You know you could be right, and in my experiences the jury’s still out because I’m still waiting for all the information of the fourth quarter last year which was the sort of chunk of the sales and I won’t get that for a little while more. If I was in it just for that, I’m sure I’d be incredibly disappointed and more cynical than I already am. As I said, there were so many things with this project that had nothing to do with making my nut, that really had to do with can I do this first of all, is it possible to do, can I actually use it as an excuse to study music I don’t know and find a bunch of music that I’ve never heard before and fall in love with a bunch of music I’ve never heard before, to have my brain fed in a very intensive dose day after day. In all those ways, that had nothing to do with the bottom line, I was incredibly lucky. Even the thought of toiling for a year on a biography of one artist seems to me to be really dumb right now. I mean it’s just not attractive, even if it’s the artist that I care about the most, the juice ain’t worth the squeeze. In my case the juice was worth the squeeze to do this and I’ll be able to take this sort of experience that I’ve had and apply it to whatever critical endeavor I do next. That was, of course, based on assumptions that are now three years old, and no longer hold in this current media environment at all.

PHAWKER: What do you think is next for Tom Moon?

TOM MOON:  I don’t know. I mean, one of the things I’m exploring is developing a site that is devoted to criticism of the arts that sort of takes the high road — I’m trying to get funding for that. I’m batting around a couple of different public radio programming ideas but, because again of the current media landscape, I’m not finding lots of champions. I’m doing my NPR thing now and I’m contributing to websites some and will hopefully be doing more there. I’m writing up the proposals for writing a second book. Bascially throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall and hoping something sticks. I honestly don’t have a whole lot of hope that a full-time job comes out of any one of those worlds, you know, it may be lots of little labors of love. I don’t have to tell you; this is what the world is now. Everyone I know in the music business, a lot of recording engineers are doing the same thing. Obviously people across the media landscape are doing that. Artists have been there for years in this predicament.

PHAWKER:  What about the music biz, where do you see this heading, have we hit the bottom yet? And once that happens, will there be a sort of reinvention or an evolution?

TOM MOON:  Boy, don’t you hope so? It is true that there’s a lot available, but there too I think is a key to what the future is. This is the most disdainful thing I encountered doing the book, and I think it’s actually a bigger problem now than it was two, three years ago, and that is the relationship that the labels have to the catalog. Now obviously the larger question of the music business goes beyond the major labels because they are not necessarily documenting the important work anymore, and may never again. They’ve abdicated that role, but they have in their vaults something that is potentially just as valuable and they have squandered the opportunity to turn the basie_1.jpgworld onto a lot of great music. There’s a lot of stuff that is not available in its proper form that hasn’t been properly maintained. It’s galling when you think that old time legends of the music business, people Goddard Lieberson and John Hammond, considered it their duty to take care of stuff that they inherited. When they were hired they walked into a vault that was rich and growing with stuff. Not to say that all of that should be available, but a whole lot of it should be available. The major labels need to become advocates for music again. One of the things I think is sort of a tragedy for the indie landscape that we live in now is the small labels cannot be expected to be advocates for music. These people that actually made billions of dollars when everyone converted from LPs to CDs have the responsibility to connect people to the heritage of music and they’re not doing that. To me, that is just the most astonishing thing, when you think about it, Kanye West knows who Count Basie is but the Kanye West audience does not — there is something that is profoundly fucked up about that. I’m not saying that Columbia and RCA and whoever else has Basie should be trying to sexy up Count Basie and do remix record or whatever, but somewhere along the line, and this is a thing I thought about my book and what it would do to help, but there’s value in connecting this audience to stuff that happened today to stuff that happened a long time ago. And it wouldn’t have come had he not heard Basie. I feel like that’s one thing that has to change; and it’s not just the labels, it’s iTunes too. iTunes is terrible — you can get five greatest record hits from Loretta Lynn but god help you if you want the original documents.

PHAWKER: With iTunes it’s almost like the old Soviet Union where they would disappear people, like, The Beatles don’t exist on iTunes, or The Beach Boys for the longest time. Most of their catalog just isn’t even there and to a young person, they’d never know that it ever existed.

TOM MOON:  Right. Then we’ll see as this Beatles launch happens later this year, we’ll see the golden effect of Apple marketing where suddenly The Beatles will matter to this generation in a different way simply because of that access. If that happens to generate a ton of sales, which I think it will, that will bear out my argument that all players in this game — I include journalists, I include artists, I include everybody that’s got a hand on a switch in the industry — have to recognize that the idea of championing the heritage is not something that should just be the responsibility of two people in a back catalog office that puts out the same shit that was issued in the ’60s. That’s part of the activity of music biz now, making the past accessible.

PHAWKER:  I heard a pretty disturbing statistic probably on NPR not that long ago about the percentage of recorded music that’s actually available that seems to diminish annually. It’s something like only 30 percent of everything that is recorded is out there and available to the public.

TOM MOON:  You think about that statistic counterpoised with the number of new releases out in a given year and you put those together and what does that say? That says unless you have a sugar daddy like VW hiring youlangfordbeatles_1.jpgevery year for a TV commercial, you are out of luck with old music. It’s just wrong, I mean part of the reason people complain about how vapid Top 40 is, if that’s true, the people that are the creators of this today are working in a vacuum and are insulated from the great wide experience of music that we somewhat take for granted. They are working in this very confined narrow area. What comes out of that is sort of the same as being a big echo chamber and all it takes is someone like Kanye to say all right, I’m gonna go back and capture this this and this, and you can hear the difference in just the spirit of his enterprise versus some of the other folks.

PHAWKER: I don’t quite understand why, especially given the nature of digital music — how you no longer have to physically warehouse it anywhere — why they would not shift their business model from selling a million copies of one album to selling ten copies of a million albums.

TOM MOON: The ‘Long Tail’ model is exactly right for music; it’s the way this will evolve eventually, yet it’s almost like you wonder if the labels just don’t want to be in that business that they used to be in, that they’ve gotten so good at sort of manufacturing Mariah Carey-type concoctions that anything that’s not that, really they don’t know what to do with it. The people that are sort of in the indies, that are championing the real music, are in a weird spot because they are not in that same conversation, and they oughta be. There’s an indie catalog too. I think it will be interesting to see what kind of sales Merge’s back catalog generates as they mark their 20th anniversary. I mean who knows, I’m sure they sell a degree of it now, but it seems a lot more of it will be available.

PHAWKER:  Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea record continues to sell like hotcakes, and continues to speak to succeeding generations.

TOM MOON:  That’s right.

PHAWKER: I just want to get this on the record because I know you would never bring this up, but it’s major neutralmilkhotel_1.jpgbragging rights: A few years back Bob Dylan said he would give NPR an interview, but the stipulation was that you had to conduct the interview. Having said that, give me your thoughts on the new Dylan record — that seems to be the obligatory rock critic question.

TOM MOON:  I honestly don’t know how to respond to the first thing, I can’t confirm, I didn’t hear it from him.

PHAWKER:  The deal I heard was he would do Fresh Air only if Tom Moon did the interview and I don’t remember why it didn’t happen but I thought they were actually pretty close to doing that?

TOM MOON:  I heard that too but I don’t think they were that close to doing that. I’m also not sure he ever put that line in the sand down. Draw your own conclusions, because I can’t speak to this, but I have made requests over many years to interview him and never did.

PHAWKER:  So you never have? Oh that’s interesting.

TOM MOON:  I’ve met him, I’ve talked to him, I’ve had interaction with him, but I’ve never sat and had an on the record interview with him. I don’t know what to say because we never did one to make him think about me one way or another as an interviewer.

PHAWKER:  Okay, so thoughts on the new Dylan record?

TOM MOON:  Well I love the sound of that record, I love the grooves, it’s just kind of a genius summer record. It’s maybe the best comment on our time that we have right now. He covers a lot of ground, both looking back five, six, ten years and where we go in the future. At the same time, I listened to it and I’m scratching my head over the lyrics and the involvement of [Grateful Dead lyricist Robert] Hunter. I can’t quite figure out why he’s there and where his finger prints stop and where Bob’s begin, in some of the songs it’s more obvious than others, but obviously Dylan has a very clear idea of what he wants to do musically and I wonder if that is driving the train now. As incredible as this sounds to say, and I’m not at all suggesting that it’s true, could it be that the lyrics are dylanlistensepia_1.jpgnot as important to him now? You can’t help but have that reaction knowing Dylan and hearing this record in the context of ladder day records.

PHAWKER:  Do you want to recommend something that’s kicking your ass currently?

TOM MOON: I had a few things, and I may not be able to pair it down to just one.  The first is the new record by Oumou Sangare, it’s called Seya, she’s in the book, she’s just one of those priestesses of songs from Maui, and she makes kind of the same record every time and it’s always wonderful. Another new record that I love a lot is sort of a jazz record by a singer named Magos Herrera, she is from Mexico, she sings a lot in Portuguese and does a lot of Brazilian type stuff, she’s like the first singer I’ve heard since Elis Regina that does an interesting arrangement of songs that have been overdone by every jazz singer that wants to sing bossanova. I did that record for NPR a while ago and in the course of going back and listening to Elis Regina, and let me say I think Elis Regina is the undiscovered gem of the 20th century, and I think she’s in the very high pantheon of singers ever, and she’s in that range with Sinatra and a few other people. All of her records are tremendous, the one that I went to as I was researching Magos is a compilation called Sings The Music of Milton Nascimento. Here’s great early songs done just magically by Elis, she’s unbelievable. If you care about the art of singing, you should hear Elis Regina.

[Beatles artwork by JOHN LANGFORD]

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