Creating a Music Biography

Conference Panels

SXSW Live Shots
Photo By Gary Miller

Creating a Music Biography

Austin Convention Center, Thursday, March 13

The general tone of this panel was that of a debate: on one side, Jim DeRogatis, rock critic for the Chicago Sun Times and author of the recent biography of Lester Bangs. On the other side, David Ritz, former Texas Monthly writer and biographer of such artists as Ray Charles, Etta James, and most recently, Jimmy Scott. The debate began early with the question of whether or not an authorized biography, where the subject has power of approval, is really a biography. DeRogatis, journalist and seeker of objective truth, says no fucking way. Ritz, on the other hand, gives complete control over content to the subject of every book he writes. The book belongs to the subject, he says, and "I remove all issues of control of the book by giving complete control to them." Ritz insisted that without this control, he can't get close enough to the subject to do his job. DeRogatis calls this hogwash, essentially, saying that it's all about the facts. The craft of writing was discussed in some length as well, with Sylvie Simmons, author of a recent Neil Young biography, divulging secrets about her own writing process: "I drink an awful lot," she said. "Then I do some housework, and then I drink some more. I have to trick myself into writing, into getting started with the actual writing, which usually happens after the drinking has gone on for quite a bit." While DeRogatis concurred with the writing-as-work view, Ritz claims to have arrived at that state that all writers fantasize about. "Writing for me is a treat and a joy," he said. "I write like I'm making music, jazz music ... I look at it like I get to play, not that I have to write." That was enough to piss off any writer in the room.

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