jersey beat.

In both the local indie scene and in our house, Jim Testa was something of a legend.

As a reporter with Hudson County’s Jersey Journal, Jim was one of the first journalists we ever spoke to, and he gave Sandy and me a full-page interview/feature article in the Journal, which ran on the day we had the release party and benefit show for Nothing Smells Quite Like Elizabeth.

Jim’s fanzine Jersey Beat was one of the oldest punk zines in the country, right up there with Maximumrocknroll.  In it, he covered well-known punk bands right alongside local Jersey bands, as if they were equals.  You’d read an interview with Green Day, turn the page and see an interview with a local pop band like Avis’o Hara or The Milwaukees.  Jim had worked tirelessly to promote Jersey bands as far back as the early days of the Hoboken music scene , and never strayed from his goal.  In the pages of Jersey Beat, as well as its sister publication dedicated to seven inches, Glut, Jim always found room for Dromedary and its bands.

Jim came to our shows even when he didn’t want to (although we could never manage to drag him to Love Sexy) and introduced us to people he thought we should know.  He got me invited into the private email list where I met so many of the indie label people and bands that, by 1995, I considered my friends.

There’s a point where, when you’re running an indie label, you realize that even though there are people out there who might think what you’re doing is cool, very few of them are going to go out of their way to evangelize what you’re doing.  Jim was one of those guys.  He treated us not as some shitty local label but as something that was real; he once told me that he thought that what we were doing was as vital as Matador, and that he considered us to be on the same plane, despite the fact that one Matador album sold more than all the Dromedary albums combined.  And the thing was that I could tell he really meant it.

And here came Jim once again, offering me a gig writing a column for Jersey Beat.  It wasn’t just “hey, I’ll ship you off some CDs and squeeze your reviews into the “reviews” section,” it was an actual column.  When he first suggested it I was flattered as all hell, and I also thought (and this is sort of ironic, given the nature of this blog and why it started) that it might be a cool idea to write a column from the perspective of an aging indie kid, pushing 30 and trying to weave together a semi-cool lifestyle, a career job, a house, and a family.

I knew that I would be taking the place of a writer named Robert Barry Francois, who wrote a column called The Quiet Corner.  It was one of the longer-running columns in the zine, and the writer had a very unique quality about his work that made it an excellent read.  He had a way of finding something good in everything he reviewed (or at least a way of not reviewing the bad stuff), and even his criticisms were respectful.

From my standpoint, I had just gotten done with five years of sorting through shitty demo tapes from every band in the world, and put a record label on hiatus with more bitterness than I’d ever felt, and I was relishing the opportunity to be a critic for a change, and to write the kind of reviews that I felt reviewers should write.  Reviews that described the music.  No self-congratulatory “I always knew this band would get a record deal” reviews, no “dash of Black Sabbath, pinch of Deep Purple, mixed in a blender with Joni Mitchell” reviews, but reviews that actually described the music and discussed the songs.  But I also wanted to be a prick.  I wanted to tear the bad stuff apart, and be as biting and nasty as I could possibly be.

And I was.  That first column, man – I don’t have it anymore, but it was rough.  I’m pretty sure I referred to people following the Tori Amos trend as “whiny, piano bench-humping parrots.”  When Jim got it, he was sort of lukewarm to it, and he asked if he could use my email address in it, to deflect any hate mail my way.  I had no problem with that at all.

The column actually got a decent response, in terms of people reaching out to me and telling me they thought it was funny, or well-done, or whatever.  The reality was that it wasn’t well-done at all; one or two issues after my debut, another Jersey Beat writer named Tris McCall – an outstanding writer with a penchant for writing brilliant reviews (his reviews often were better than the music he was actually reviewing) wrote a piece on the tendency of record reviewers to use comparative references in their reviews, rather than describe the music itself.  Tris never used comparative references, and I found myself doing that a lot.

In other words, instead of describing a particular vocal style, I found it easier to say “this band sounds similar to Journey, only with James Brown singing.”

And in hindsight, although it’s a literary cop out, I also think that readers tend to understand that sort of reference better.  Lowest common denominator, you know.

But Tris was an excellent writer and I was a hack; between he and Jim I was self-conscious about being in the same publication, but at the same time I realized that the publication was the only think truly keeping me in the scene.

At no point did I stop to wonder why I would be so desperate to remain in the scene that I so desperately escaped just a few months before.  I just wrote my reviews of shitty roots rock demo CDs and thanked my lucky stars for Jim Testa.

Any indie band from New Jersey, at some point, has to thank their lucky stars for Jim Testa.

~ by Al on November 24, 2009.

2 Responses to “jersey beat.”

  1. I second that Al. Jim introduced us to a world of bands networking beyond our friends and locals. Not only have he always been supportive of the band in print and online, but when we were touring more he was always great for sharing names of people in towns where we might find a gig or a couch to crash on. Jim Testa is really a hero to me.

  2. Hi Jeff!

    I really can’t say enough about Jim; he’s been awesome for a long time. Thanks for visiting the blog, please stick around (even though the story’s almost over)!

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