THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES
By Dan Ouellette
MUSIC : Archival interviews with rock artists Lou Reed, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello and more to jazz maestros Wayne Shorter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Regina Carter, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and many more—conversations at pivotal junctures in their careers for print publications that are long gone.
PREFACE TO THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES
In Don DeLillo’s epic postmodern novel Underworld, the protagonist Nick Shay is an executive for a waste management firm. Early in the book, he says, “We were waste handlers, waste traders, cosmologists of waste…Waste is a religious thing. We entomb contaminated waste with a sense of reverence and dread. It is necessary to respect what we discard.”
In this instance, Nick is talking about toxic chemical and radioactive refuse, but he’s also reflecting on the big picture of a consumer culture awash in trash. Later in the book, while discussing what course of resolve to take with their ailing mother, Nick and his estranged younger brother Matt talk while they wash and dry dishes. At a pause in their uncomfortable conversation, Matt steers away from the difficult topic at hand to a mundane inquiry. He asks, “How’s the waste business?”
Nick sarcastically responds, “Booming. The waste business. Bigger by the minute.”
“I’ll bet it is.”
“We can’t build enough landfills, dig enough gaping caverns.”
Nick is an alienated expert on the escalation of waste and a detached connoisseur of landfills — the mountains of garbage created by modern society and containing the byproducts of history, waiting to be probed like ancient tells by future excavators seeking for insight into a crazed mass-consumption culture. Filling the bulk of these bulldozer-compacted sites are common-day, throw-away items like nonrecyclable plastics, glass shards, pulverized concrete and twisted rebar, animal fat and bones, decaying wet vegetable matter fit for the compost pile, and arguably the most notorious toss: paper, which when decomposed by bacteria in the soil accounts for the potent greenhouse gas creates methane, which is twenty percent more detrimental to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Some reports estimate that fourteen percent of a typical landfill is newsprint, which if not interred but recycled is generally used to create tissue and cardboard. The EPA in a 2005 recycling report estimated that paper in general accounted for fifty percent of national landfill, at a weight of 42 million tons. Other studies found that municipal waste of paper was more in the range of thirty-five percent. The good news is that 1993 marked the first year that more paper was recycled than was buried in landfills (or burned for the sake of landfill shortages).
Even so, my guess is that the bulk of my career writing about popular music in magazines and newspapers is forever buried in the landfills throughout America. Some of my stories — including a 1993 cover story on Frank Zappa shortly before his death for the long-shuttered Tower Records monthly magazine Pulse! — had a short shelf life before being bundled up and hauled away to make way for the new issue. Interestingly, since Pulse! died before the massive reign of digital, there’s no official website address where you can access what I wrote (except for a fan site or two).
The same holds true for the once-heralded daily, the San Francisco Chronicle, where I wrote “Special to the Chronicle” stories as a regular contributor when I lived in the Bay Area as well as when I moved to New York City. While some of my stories are available online, the paper versions added to the landfill mountains in Northern California. Then there’s Spectrum magazine that I edited and wrote for before its demise in the late ’90s and early aughts. A Google search for my two sit-downs with Lou Reed reveals zilch. A contributor to DownBeat magazine since 1987, hardly any of my contributions, including a cover story on John Lee Hooker, are available online. While many people tend to save copies of the “jazz, blues and beyond” bible, far more clean out their cellars, cart off the magazines to the trash and the pages rot in the garbage dump.
So, as a nod to posterity, I’ve compiled a portfolio of articles on pop, blues and jazz for magazines and newspapers I have written for since the late ’80s that have largely contributed to the landfills. Once a month a new long-form chapter will be posted at Medium.
The title? Appropriately, The Landfill Chronicles.
While my Zappa piece is not an exhaustive review of the icon’s legendary career, it does serve as a snapshot of a conversation I had with him in his home shortly before he died. The original manuscript I turned in to my Pulse! editors stretched to 6,000+ words which was shaved down to a manageable 2,000+ word story. For the book, I provide the “writer’s cut,” keeping sections of my original that were lopped off.
My Lou Reed chapter is a stitching together of conversations in his SoHo office about two of his latter-day albums, Ecstasy and a collection based on Edgar Allen Poe-inspired The Raven that turned into three articles for Spectrum and the San Francisco Chronicle.
My Astor Piazzolla profile, which originally appeared in the Berkeley Monthly, opens a window onto the bandoneón player’s fascinating story of how he came to develop and suffer for nuevo tango.
There are three jazz travel tales, including two cover stories for DownBeat, on Regina Carter going to meet a famous, guard-protected violin in Genoa, Italy, and Dee Dee Bridgewater seeking her African roots in Mali. Then there’s another DownBeat profile series on South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) who I interviewed in Cape Town on the fifth anniversary of freedom and twenty years later when he was performing in Austria.
The only story in this book that did not appear in print in a magazine or newspaper is the snapshot of Joni Mitchell at her house north of Vancouver on the eve of the release of Shine, her first album of new material in ten years — and perhaps her finale. To be fully transparent, I was hired by her record label to write background material on the album. Excerpts of what appears here ended up in press kits for the album (long tossed by writers on the journalists list, except perhaps saved by Joni fanatics), but there are full documents on the album as well as a journal-like overview of meeting her and talking with her about topics not related to the album.
Other chapters include profiles on a day in the life of iconoclastic jazz composer Henry Threadgill, a rambling conversation with blues icon John Lee Hooker, a couple of stitched-together conversations with Elvis Costello, a look-see at the opinionated and controversial jazz spokesman Wynton Marsalis, two chats — 10 years apart — with producer/songwriter T Bone Burnett and a couple of mystical dialogues with jazz great Wayne Shorter.
All these stories need to be chronicled as they offer history beyond what’s available.
Retrieving these stories from the landfill has been a dumpster-diver’s dream.