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Interview with Gillian G. Gaar
03 August 2012
Gillian G. Gaar
Interview by Neil Daniels
Gillian G. Gaar is a Seattle based rock writer and author of several respectable tomes. Her bibliography includes titles on Green Day, Elvis, women in rock ’n’ roll and a 33/3 book on Nirvana’s In Utero. Her latest book is called Entertain Us: The Rise Of Nirvana, which is published by Jawbone Press. Details can be found at ...
When did you start writing about rock music?
The first publications I contributed to were Rocky Horror Picture Show fanzines; well, it’s a rock movie! So that would’ve been the late ‘70s. I did little things off and on for next few years until landing at The Rocket magazine in Seattle in the early ‘80s.
What music magazines did you read growing up?
Looking back, I realize I only read the teeny bop stuff like Tiger Beat and 16. And I didn’t even like the artists being covered (David Cassidy, Osmonds). But that was all there was, really. I didn’t know about other rock magazines until college. Though, oddly, I did go on to interview both David Cassidy and Donny Osmond… In college I started subscribing to Rolling Stone, which I’ve done off and on ever since. I used to read back issues of Melody Maker in the library. When I went to the UK the first time, I discovered all the other music weeklies, NME, Sounds, Record Mirror, and ironically enough Creem! In later years would read Q, Uncut, Mojo, Record Collector (and even later writing for all but Uncut). Today I subscribe to Rolling Stone, Goldmine (I write for them), and Beatlefan.
Of all the artists you’ve interviewed who was the most difficult?
Ah, I really don’t like to remember that.
Wow, many of them…it’s exciting to get to talk to people whose work you’ve admired. For example, Yoko Ono was awesome. Then there are those that are just bizarre, like Tiny Tim. Or the Del Rubio Triplets. Other memorable interviews…Marianne Faithfull, Laurie Anderson, Michael Crawford, Steve Binder (he directed the Elvis TV special), the three “Carrie Nations” from Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls…I could go on.
You’ve written several books, which one was the most challenging?
The first! (first edition of She’s A Rebel: The History Of Women In Rock & Roll in 1992). After that it gets easier.
How long did it take you to research and write your current book on Nirvana?
In a sense I feel I’ve been researching it since March 1988, when I first typed their name in the calendar listings for The Rocket magazine where I was working at the time! But for this specific book it was about a year and a half.
What makes it different from other books on the band?
Mine is the only one that looks in detail at every recording session and radio session through 1990, in a narrative context. The focus is on the music.
You’ve written previous books on the band. What is it about Nirvana that you find so alluring?
Maybe because their story hasn’t been picked over as much. It’s hard to find a new angle for the Beatles or Elvis, for example. I still think there are stories out there that haven’t been told. Plus, it was a story I experienced first hand, watching the band (and other Seattle acts) go from Seattle to the kind of fame we’d never imagined.
What is it about Nirvana that makes them so popular with each subsequent generation of rock fans?
Well, it was music without any artifice. Nevermind wasn’t supposed to be a mainstream hit, it was straight from the heart. It has authenticity. People respond to that.
Of all the published books on grunge, which ones would you recommend?
Ha ha, mine! Michael Azerrad’s book on Nirvana, Come As You Are, is actually pretty decent on the subject of “grunge” as well, and it has an immediacy about it, as it was written when the story was going on. Everett True’s Nirvana: The True Story is more subjective, but also somewhat broad, it isn’t just about “grunge.” The best overall books, right now, are Greg Prato’s Grunge Is Dead, and Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town — the “grunge” scene’s own Rashomon.
What are your other favourite books on rock and metal?
Well, I’ve certainly read a lot of them. I remember being bowled over by Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming when it first came out. I liked Philip Norman’s books on the Beatles (Shout), the Stones (Symphony For The Devil), and John Lennon (John Lennon). The all time classic is Peter Guralnick’s Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley. Of course you have to read the sequel too, Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley, but there’s something extra special about Last Train. He makes that early rock ‘n’ roll era really come alive. He just has a very beautiful way of writing.
Who are your favourite rock writers?
I don’t know that I have favourite writers; I tend to read subjects, rather than writers. But I am looking forward to Peter Guralnick’s biography on Sam Phillips.
You’ve written a book on the history of women in rock ’n’ roll. Who, in your eyes, was the first woman in rock? And the all time greatest women in rock?
I think that can be pretty subjective, like what was the first rock ‘n’ roll record? Was Wanda Jackson the first woman in rock ‘n’ roll, or was there someone else who only released a record regionally? All time greatest…the first name that came to mind was Janis Joplin.
What’s the current rock scene like in Seattle?
There are lots of shows, but I don’t get out that much to them, partly because of the expense. Cheaper shows are at clubs, but I must admit I don’t like standing for long periods of time. But pick up one of the weekly papers and you’ll see lots of stuff going on.
What’s your music collection (CDs, LPs, books, etc) like? How do you store it?
I’ve sold off a lot of stuff over the years. I guess I now have more CDs than anything. Too many CDRs; more than enough to listen to. It’s stored every which way, on shelves, in boxes, in folders. Oh yes, books and still videos too!
Who are your favourite artists of all time?
Well, that changes over time, you go phases of listening to different artists. You’ve seen I have an interest in the Beatles, Elvis, and Nirvana. Favourite albums include Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, Queen’s A Night At The Opera, Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Smile, the ‘70s Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice stuff original Jesus Christ Superstar (Ian Gillan as Jesus) and Evita (Julie Cunningham as Evita), after writing a book on Green Day I really got into their two “rock operas,” American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. I think Patsy Cline has an amazing voice, Sleater-Kinney, Miles Davis, the Broadway soundtrack of My Fair Lady (Julie Andrews), and I’m quite fond of Leontyne Price’s version of Carmen. And Danielle Dax.
What advice would you give to a rock writer trying to get a book deal?
Don’t go into it expecting to make money. Do it for the chance of being able to write at length. That, and some good reviews, are probably all you’re going to get. I guess for a big deal, w/a major publisher, you do need an agent, but there are plenty of smaller presses you can approach yourself w/o an agent, so you can get in that way. Look for an idea or angle that no one has done before.
Has the recession had an impact on you in terms of paid journalism and books?
Well sure; publications are gone, payment is less, in some cases outlets don’t pay at all. Advances have gone down, not that I ever got a big one. I’m seeing more publishers just pay outright for a book, w/no royalties afterwards, or sometimes paying no advance at all, so royalties start right away. So don’t give up your day job!
What are your next book projects?
I am working on a book called 100 Things Beatles Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die. I am open to other offers!