David Carr, RIP

Look, I hate it as much as you hate it when some beloved person dies and some less beloved person tries to ride the hem of his garments. Gimme a pass on this one.

Four and a half years ago, I was caught out for sending rude, childish emails about conservatives — whom I’d been covering as a reporter — to a liberal email listserv. In short order, I resigned from a very nice (but increasingly pressure-cooking) job at The Washington Post. Torn between an idea of quitting the profession and the desire to make rent, I wrote two pieces about what had happened, the first of them for Andrew Breitbart’s site Big Journalism. When media reporters called, I answered. In the early days, only two of them actually called me to get the story.

And then, the weekend after I resigned, I got this email from David Carr.

hey dave,
I write a monday media column for nytimes.. have been talking to ppl about what happened with you at the Post and how fraught the intersection btrw MSM and the current cohort of reporters/bloggers/commentators.. I got a great sense of you take from what you wrote on Big Journalism, but if you can stand any more weigel talking about weigel and what people say about weigel, I’d love to chat.

Carr, who was by many leagues the best at what he did, had left a number. I called back and missed him. He got my voicemail and replied:

sorry about that. was on phone busy advancing my plot to take over the world. it’s not going too well so far, but the day is young. am back on the grid. call when you come free.

I called back. It’s a dim memory, like most of them from that week, but I can recall Carr running circles around me with Barry Allen speed, rasping like he’d gargled with Tom Waits’s mouthwash. He pushed me away from a patter (not false, but safe) that I’d been giving everyone who talked to me. He empathized. He cajoled. That way he wrote? Exactly like how he asked questions, pushing and pulling me along. I wish I’d taken notes on how he interviewed me, because he knew exactly how to get his story.

Then he wrote his story, and it was just perfect. In it, I was unforgivably stupid — true! — but the people who’d hired me were castigated for making up ethics rules on the fly.

“If you dumped every reporter who ever sent a snide message or talked smack in private, there would be nothing but crickets chirping in newsrooms all over America,” Carr wrote. Then at the end of his piece:

This is a story about Washington, a place that prizes political consistency and punishes ideological deviation. Mr. Weigel is a libertarian who voted for both Ron Paul and Barack Obama, who supports gay rights and sees the bright side in Bob Barr, who supports not just open borders, but also free markets. He was also a newspaper journalist embedded in the conservative movement and a blogger embedded at The Post.

 

Those apparent contradictions gave Mr. Weigel’s writing texture and surprise, but it also made him a pretty juicy target. Regardless of how much blather you hear about the two parties bickering in Washington, the Beltway is really a monoculture that accommodates the two poles of a debate but very little in between.

Carr could have written anything with my interview, and he chose to write that. It changed the way I thought about reporting. When I got back into the business, as a reporter for Slate, I kept talking to Carr. When we talked in person, it was at my first (and still only) South by Southwest, where he stopped me gushing by ushering me into a concert he thought I should see. He’d written a story about me, then he’d moved on, both the writer and the subject a little better for the experience. You know that Janet Malcolm line that people like to quote — “every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”? David Carr proved that wrong, on deadline, all the time.

Over email, he had a way of totally underselling what he was reporting, writing, and thinking. One time, when he thought I’d know who to talk to for a profile he was writing, I sent him some ideas, and he thanked me with a warning: “I will be back at you as soon as I find a way in that hasn’t been worked over every which way.” This was right before writing a beautifully turned obituary of Andrew Breitbart, “a fresh-off-the-boat Irish storyteller” (no one had come up with such a perfect description of the man) and small, tough anecdotes dug out by careful reporting. They had not been worked over, by anybody.

I don’t have Carr’s facility with language, and I didn’t get to know him as well as the people who are going to mourn him right. All I want to say is: Fuck this. Life is short, but it shouldn’t be this short. Least of all for someone who understood so delicately and elementally how people lived.

 

Important: A Thirtysomething White Guy Has Grammy Opinions

This year, 2015, saw the arrival of a personal milestone that I never expected to see. I am old enough to cheer a Grammy winner. Beck, who’s now spent more years famous than he spent growing up to record his seemingly-one-hit-wonder “Loser,” won the Album of the Year for Morning Phase. Kanye West, being Kanye West, used the many forums available to him to protest that the award had not gone to Beyonce. This was wrong: Beyonce, one of the most beautiful and charismatic singers on the planet, makes generally boring music, all club tricks and gimmicks and vocal galloping.

Beck’s award, West’s protest, and the predictable Grammy for British shit-merchant Sam Smith — this got me thinking who I would have given the Grammys of various years to. It was a fun exercise, forcing me to weigh several factors against each other, to create a universe in which songs tuneful enough for the radio could be swapped in for whatever horrible music got awards for various years. I went back 40 years, roughly to the last year of prog rock’s boom. Annotations to follow.

1974
Album: Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Record: King Crimson, “Starless”

1975
Album: Bob Dylan, Blood On The Tracks
Record: Brian Eno, “St. Elmo’s Fire”

1976
Album: Joni Mitchell, Hejira
Record: ABBA, “Dancing Queen”

1977
Album: Art Garfunkel, Watermark
Record: David Bowie, “Heroes”

1978
Album: Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
Record: The Walker Brothers, “Nite Flights”

1979
Album: The Clash, London Calling
Record: 20/20, “Yellow Pills”

1980
Album: Talking Heads, Remain In Light
Record: Suicide, “Dream Baby Dream”

1981
Album: King Crimson, Discipline
Record: Genesis, “No Reply At All”

1982
Album: Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw
Record: X, “The Have Nots”

1983
Album: Brian Eno, Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks
Record: Yes, “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”

1984
Album: The Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime
Record: The Smiths, “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want”

1985
Album: Marillion, Misplaced Childhood
Record: Tom Waits, “Downtown Train”

1986
Album: XTC, Skylarking
Record: Crowded House, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”

1987
Album: Prince, Sign ‘O’ The Times
Record: The Go-Betweens, “Right Here”

1988
Album: Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man
Record: EPMD, “Strictly Business”

1989
Album: The Pixies, Doolittle
Record: Michael Penn, “No Myth”

1990
Album: Fred Frith, Gravity
Record: They Might Be Giants, “Birdhouse In Your Soul”

1991
Album: A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory
Record: Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

1992
Album: Adrian Belew, Inner Revolution
Record: Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

1993
Album: The Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Record: Archers of Loaf, “Web In Front”

1994
Album: Nas, Illmatic
Record: Freedy Johnston, “Bad Reputation”

1995
Album: GZA, Liquid Swords
Record: Ben Folds Five, “Brick”

1996
Album: Steve Earle, I Feel Alright
Record: Sleeper, “What Do I Do Now?

1997
Album: Spiritualized, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
Record: Sleater-Kinney, “One More Hour”

1998
Album: Belle and Sebastian, The Boy With The Arab Strap
Record: Pulp, “Like a Friend”

1999
Album: The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs
Record: Guided by Voices, “Teenage FBI”

2000
Album: OutKast, Stankonia
Record: Queens of the Stone Age, “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret”

2001
Album: Jay-Z, The Blueprint
Record: Gorillaz, “Clint Eastwood”

2002
Album: The Mountain Goats, Tallahassee
Record: Solomon Burke, “Fast Train”

2003
Album: The New Pornographers, Electric Version
Record: Jay-Z, “99 Problems”

2004
Album: Stars, Set Yourself On Fire
Record: Arcade Fire, “Rebellion (Lies)”

2005
Album: Porcupine Tree, Deadwing
Record: Sigur Rós, “Hoppipolla”

2006
Album: Keene Brothers, Blues and Boogie Shoes
Record: The Gossip, “Standing In The Way Of Control”

2007
Album: The National, Boxer
Record: LCD Soundsystem, “All My Friends”

2008
Album: Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III
Record: Passion Pit, “Sleepyhead”

2009
Album: Mastodon, Crack the Skye
Record: The Lonely Island, “I’m On a Boat”

2010
Album: Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Record: Robyn, “Dancing on My Own”

2011
Album: Mates of States, Mountaintops
Record: Tyler, the Creator, “Yonkers”

2012
Album: Scott Walker, Bisch Bosch
Record: Chairlift, “I Belong In Your Arms”

2013
Album: Tegan and Sarah, Heartthrob
Record: Daft Punk, “Get Lucky”

2014
Album: Beck, Morning Phase
Record: Run the Jewels, “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)”