Hours before speaking to Jerry Thackray, I had to grapple one conundrum. Should I hail him as Jerry, or as Everett True?
You’d wonder, too, if you were about to meet one of the most contentious, outrageous, and downright memorable music critics of our time. Wherever Everett went, that was where the party was bound to be; if Everett didn’t care for a band, then he’d blast them in the Melody Maker and seal their fate. He pioneered Creation Records as the Legend!, broke Nirvana to the masses, and spearheaded two of the coolest music magazines on the market (Plan B and Careless Talk Costs Lives). And now, after decades of escapades, he’s written a memoir of sorts – The Electrical Storm: Grunge, My Part In Its Downfall – which leaps between drunken revelries, lonely nights in, collected interviews, and republished reviews, leaving the reader to tie the threads together.
“I really can’t remember most of these stories, that’s what you have to realize about this book,” said Thackray. “The idea behind it was simply – when you go down to the pub, which I used to do a long time ago, and you’re out there with your mates, and everyone’s a bit drunk, and you all get out your stories that you tell one another, I used to do that alongside everyone else.
“But all my stories – they used to go down a storm, but they were dependent on namedropping, and I was a dreadful namedropper (or a good namedropper, depending on your perspective). So I wanted to see whether the stories still stood up if I took the name out of it – which was the original intention, but obviously that varies depending on where you are in the book.” Thackray refers to moments like the time he bumped into David Bowie on accident, or when he watched Keith Richards sneer at a mate’s wife during an interview. Many of the other rock stars who cameo in Thackray's book, however, remain either partially or entirely anonymous – and, indeed, the mythical aura of the The Electrical Storm only swells with each omission.
On the last gasp of 2016, I spoke with Thackray over Skype for over an hour – ostensibly about The Electrical Storm, but in turn we discussed the pains of self-publishing, postmodern media theories, how to be a music critic in the 21st century, and the Spice Girls story that has to go in the sequel. That’s the Everett in him – as much as the good gent disavows his nome de plume, he still knows how to entertain.
“If THAT doesn’t work…”
Now, as a whippersnapper from the US, I only came to know Everett – certainly not Jerry – through the internet. Shortly after moving to Brisbane in 2008, he teamed up with photographer extraordinaire Justin Edwards and fronted the rabble-rousing music blog Collapse Board. Here, anything seemed possible: you could compose a review with pictures, taunt record labels, scribble all over the covers, poll your friends on Facebook, and tell stories until dawn. (As Thackray put it: “We were so ahead of everyone else, and no one fucking noticed or realized it. Well, that’s not quite true. Some people did. But what, a handful?”) This was where I learned to write about music.
Mind, by the time I jumped onto the staff, Collapse Board’s life was wearing thin – and by 2014, Thackray was dissatisfied. “It was frustrating me that I couldn’t attach value to my words online,” he said. “I couldn’t really attach any monetary value. I never really tried with Collapse Board – it just seemed fairly evident that I wouldn’t be able to.”
So, to attack a new angle on the internet (“and also, I just wanted to have a writing blog – maybe I had seen Simon Reynolds’ blog briefly”), Thackray opened a Tumblr page called The Electrical Storm. Every week, he’d post at least one new recollection – and then, after seven days, he’d take it down. His rationale for this was twofold: “1) I was already thinking that they should be in physical print, rather than online, and I didn’t want to spoil that,” he said. “And 2) I was trying to attach some kind of value to them, and people always say that time is the currency online, not money.”
When Thackray moved back to the UK a year later, he knew he’d need to start something new. “I knew that, if I was going to keep my head above water at all, I still had to connect with people,” he said. “And I was like, well, should I do a website, or should I do print publishing? That was a no-brainer – I’ve been studying this stuff, I’ve got a PhD in this stuff, I’ve been doing this for seven years – you can’t make money off this on the web. I can’t believe it’s taken people that long to realize that. It’s a no-brainer. Why can’t you make money off of it? Because there’s no ownership involved in it, there’s no possession, there’s no artifacts, there’s no physicality.”
Thackray's publishing company, Rejected Unknown, germinated months later, after 33 1/3 rejected his proposal to cover Daniel Johnston’s Hi, How Are You?. “My main motivation is rejection,” Thackray explained. “And – well, you do give up if you’re rejected, but you don’t give up in the way that people think. You just go off and do something yourself. And if that doesn’t work, you just go off and do something yourself. And if THAT doesn’t work, you just go off and do something yourself.” Thus, in a maelstrom of summons and manifestos, Thackray gathered a crew of dedicated writers and editors within weeks (yours truly included) to cull together Rejected Unknown’s flagship release, 101 Albums To Die Before You Hear.
Now, a year later, The Electrical Storm emerges as the second title from his company – and while self-publishing has its frustrations (“crowdfunding is soul-destroying. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone”), Thackray remains hopeful. “With Rejected Unknown, I saw an opportunity to make money again with something I love doing. I still think that opportunity exists. You kinda have to believe that opportunity exists, or otherwise – even though it’s an illusion, even though you may be fooling yourself, it doesn’t matter. You still have to believe in the illusion. Being an academic has taught me that – academics have no authority whatsoever, they have the illusion of authority. And they have to believe in it, or otherwise they’re worthless.”
“I can’t recognize the person I’m writing about”
While Everett is best known for “breaking” the grunge scene to the world, Thackeray devised The Electrical Storm’s subtitle (“Grunge, My Part In Its Downfall”) with tongue firmly in cheek. Partly a Spike Milligan reference, the term also harkens back to another anecdote from 2005, when Thackray trekked back to Seattle to interview people about himself: “Al Larsen [of Some Velvet Sidewalk] is sitting down opposite me…and he remembers seeing the original grunge article in Melody Maker. You know, it was a big deal at the time, and it was a big spread, from top to cover – and he was on tour at the time, and he sat down and read it, and he was like, ‘Oh, no! What the fuck has Jerry done? He’s ruined everything!’ “
The tale strikes at the crux of Thackray's being, a rift between self and id that has only widened with time. “Jerry Thackray always had a major problem with Everett True,” he explained. “And why did he have a problem with him? Well, he was immensely jealous of Everett True – I guess that’s me, right? It gets very confusing. As I said in the intro of the book, I can’t recognize the person I’m writing about. He has no emotional connection with me – although I guess he has, but I don’t know what it is.”
From the other side of that rift, Thackray can calmly contemplate his alter ego’s legacy – or, indeed, if that legacy never existed. Quoting from mass media theorist Marshall McLuhan, he expounded the theory that the prevailing medium of the day determined world events, and not individuals. “[According to McLuhan], the rise of radio – as a big medium at the time – is why Hitler came to prominence,” he said. “And if it hadn’t been Hitler, it would have been someone else…Hitler was nothing extraordinary. It would have just been someone else, because the medium demanded it.
“Now (and this may be a bit of a jump, I won’t deny it) go back 25 years, to the final huzzah for the traditional music press. I don’t think Everett True had anything to do with grunge. I think it would have been somebody else. It’s impossible to prove that one, obviously. It’s one of those ‘what ifs’. Obviously, if it’d been someone else, then the focus would’ve been different, and it would have been on someone else, and blah blah blah. But I still think it’s more of a ‘right place, right time’ [scenario]. I don’t think Everett True had anything to do with that.”
On being a critic in the 21st century
Nevertheless, no one could deny that Everett became a rock star among rock stars –and a contemporary critic like myself does wonder if any writer today could bring artists to their knees (as Everett could literally do, if one chooses to believe his recollections in the book). I claimed that people don’t talk about writers anymore; in rebuttal, Thackray once again blamed the medium. “It’s because they’re not afforded the same visibility, and it’s also because it’s not such a closed shop,” he explained. “It’s much more open. And that’s the downside of it being much more open, that the power isn’t so concentrated.”
Granted, Thackray doesn’t believe that writers couldn’t still have debauched adventures in the press – like his stoned interview with Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which the pair completely made up. “Of course Karen O behaved like that around me, because we were doing it on our own terms,” he said. “And there are always going to be musicians who respond to that favorably. Always. And there are always going to be managers who respond to that, and there are always going to be press agents who respond to that. I don’t think that’s going to change. There’s always going to be loads who don’t, and that goes across all walks of life; the knack is just trying to align yourself with the ones that do understand.”
The main problem with modern critics, though – as both of us concurred – is that very few bloggers realize the impact that their words could wield, particularly writers in pop music. Thackray, who’s been a Marvel buff since childhood, quotes Stan Lee’s infamous creed from Spider-Man – “With great power comes great responsibility.” Like Paul Morley, he steadfastly believes in writing with an agenda in mind: “Even with the tiny, teensy-weensy bit of power that I got offered, if you don’t take advantage of that power, then why are you there? If you’re not trying to change the world, if you’re not trying to fuck shit up all of the time, why are you there?”
Now, that sentiment does hinge on the assertion that the public still reads and values a critic’s work – and, in today’s world of instant streaming and lossless downloads, many have questioned if critics still count for anything. Thackray – who wrote a whole dissertation on this subject back in 2015 – argues that they do. “I’ve been aware that, for a long time, my role has been to validate people through my writing,” he said. “If I write about someone and I say it’s good, there’s enough of a connection there – that they know who I am, or know someone that knows me – that it matters something to them. And you give something back too, and you help keep things going.”
Granted, as Thackray admitted (and I, once again, concurred), that validation often comes from the critic’s most heartfelt desire to belong somewhere. He recalled a review he wrote on Collapse Board for Tunabunny, a cosmic slacker pop band from Athens, GA: “It was obvious to me that the music demanded something that wasn’t a straightforward review, because it wasn’t the same ‘ticks-all-the-boxes, uses the same language that everyone else every time they fucking sit to write about music’. And I think I just experimented with different font sizes and wrote ‘why aren’t these people my friends?’ over and over again. Because it seemed so, so screamingly obvious.
“But that’s all [music criticism] is, isn’t it? ‘Why aren’t these people my friends?’ It comes down that one sentence. That’s all Lester Bangs is. That’s the secret to understanding Lester Bangs.”
Never one to dwell, Thackray already has several ideas for his next book. A second volume of 101 Albums shall definitely proceed the first, and a compendium of articles from Collapse Board is in the pipeline.
But, most surprisingly, Thackray has already contemplated a companion piece to The Electrical Storm.“There’s a fellow I know, who I’ve seen about twice in the past 20 years, but he’s one of my best friends, Steven Sweet, a photographer. I used to travel a lot with him. I remember him saying to me a few years ago that he was really affronted by something I’d written… he was like, ‘But that didn’t happen!’ or ‘That did happen, but certainly not in the way you told it.’ So I thought that’d be a great follow-up: That Didn’t Happen: The Electrical Storm In The Eyes Of Steven Sweet. And just interview him about every single story in the book, especially about the ones he wasn’t present for, and get his take on it.”
And, naturally, Thackray would love to fill a second book with all the anecdotes he couldn’t fit in the Electrical Storm - like his “Spice Girls story”, which isn’t actually a story but a punchline. “The fact of the matter is, if you just say to people, ‘I’ve met the Spice Girls’, there’s still a lot of people that are impressed by that,” he said. “And [when] they go, ‘Who’s your favorite Spice Girl, then?’, I’ve got an answer to that. And it’s Baby, because she’s the only one that bothered to flirt with me.”
There’s also his George Clinton story, from his time in Brisbane. “Martin James is a fellow who got me my job at Soylent University, he’s an old school music writer – and he always tells the story, I believe when I was his editor, I can’t remember, of seeing George Clinton at some festival somewhere. And just before George Clinton went on stage, the sky opened, and this massive thunderstorm [rained down], and there was just this mass exodus from the front of the stage, as everyone ran for cover. He was in them, I think. And he bumped into me, and I was going the opposite way, straight toward the stage. And I was going, ‘Where the fuck do you think you’re going? Get back down there and dance to George Clinton!’”
“You just do it”
As a fledgling writer who took cues from Thackray, I couldn’t help but ask if he had any advice for other neophyte critics out there. Mind, I should know already, as someone who’s read his tips for music critics dozens of times. And indeed, some of those pearls of wisdom resurfaced in our interview, such as “don’t describe the music” and “never trust a writer without an agenda”. But his biggest tip? “You just do it,” he said. “What I always say to students is you immerse yourself. If you want to understand subcultural theory, you become part of that subculture. You can’t teach subcultural theory without being part of a subculture.”
As our conversation winds down, Thackray continues to entertain me with anecdotes, and he has to remind me to stop him from rambling.
“That’s the problem with me!” I said. “I could listen to people for hours and hours.”
“That’s good,” Thackray replied. “That’s why I was a crack interviewer, because I would just be talking over people. It’s better to be a good listener.”
But, in true Everett fashion, he’s worked a way around his own flaws. “It struck me that – around the time I became Everett True, actually – that if I were going to jump in bands’ vans with them (which I love doing), if I was going to get in their faces and hang out with them and do everything I want to do, I had to be the entertainment. In a way, whether or not I was a good listener or not was immaterial.
“I always used to say to people – and I was only semi-joking with this – that if there’s nothing happening, then you create the story yourself. You do something so outrageous, that everyone has to react to it. And then you’ve got a story.”
And, as anyone who reads The Electrical Storm will discover, Everett True had quite the knack for that.
Everett True’s The Electrical Storm is out now, and can be purchased here.