Robert Hilburn, in quintessence

LA Observed reported  last month that Robert Hilburn, the LA Times’ pop music critic since the 1960s, will finally give up his post, accepting a buyout offered as part of yet another staff reduction.

Though he didn’t join the Times’ staff full-time until 1970, Hilburn concert and album reviews started running in 1966.  In the late 60s and 70s, when I started reading the Times, its most prominent writers were the movie reviewer Charles Champlin, the sports columnist Jim Murray, the uncategorizable columnist Jack Smith (he’d have made a fine blogger), the gossip columnist Joyce Haber, the acerbic classical music critic Martin Bernheimer, various political writers like Jack Nelson, Bill Boyarsky and George Skelton, editorialist Tony Day, the brilliant feature/profile writers Bella Stumbo and John Balzar–and Hilburn. Most of them are gone now.

How did Hilburn survive for so long? He’s by far the worst writer of the above group. His prose style was always clunky. Describing music in words is challenging to be sure, but Hilburn’s vocabulary was exceptionally limited. “Inviting textures” abounded. Just look at what he wrote today, in what is probably one of his final pieces as a staff writer, a review of the best songs of 2005:

 8. Fiona Apple’s “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” (Epic/Clean Slate). There’s an almost irresistible feel-good spirit to this refreshing tale of self-affirmation, served up in a pop-cabaret style reminiscent of the rich sophistication of French chanteuse Edith Piaf (special credit to producer Jon Brion and orchestral arranger Patrick Warren). The reminder that we’re all OK is especially useful if you’re feeling out of step on New Year’s Eve.

4. Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils & Dust” (Columbia). Here is someone who has given us lots of New Year’s Eve music, some of it pure entertainment, some of it as thoughtful as this timely meditation on matters of faith and morals. It’s the story of a soldier in Iraq, but its implications travel much further.

1. Neil Young’s “When God Made Me” (Reprise). The tune, from Young’s recent “Prairie Wind” album, has such a warm, traditional feeling that it seemed like something from a family hymnal when Young introduced it at a Live 8 benefit last summer. Yet it was equally tender and touching when Young repeated it during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims in September. It should be no less haunting tonight.

Arrgh.  He makes you want to take out a red pencil and chop out the windy phrases and unneeded adjectives. An “almost irresistable feel-good spirit.”  A “warm, traditional feeling.”  Has Hilburn ever encountered a meditation that wasn’t “timely,” or sophistication that wasn’t “rich”? Some other words Hilburn couldn’t help but overuse: “vital,” “elements,” “lovely,” “adventurous,” “troubling,” “thoughtful,” “engaging.” 

A few months ago, Patterico vented his rage against Hilburn for a 1973 Jethro Tull review that allegedly steered the band’s career in an unrewarding direction. Helpfully, he links to the review, which Hilburn could’ve written yesterday:  

If there was ever any question about the rambling, disjointed nature of (Ian) Anderson’s longer works, the placement of these punchier, crisper, more concise pieces from Aqualung on the same show answered it. Anderson remains a talented, serious, imaginative artist, but his extended works need more easily identifiable, engaging themes and varied musical elements if they are to be worthy of the attention he wants for them.

Ngh! Why use one adjective when three will do?

So the question hangs still:  What accounts for Hilburn’s survival?  Well: To his credit, his taste–and the disproportionate effect his taste had on the LA-based music industry–was generally reliable. A top-ten list for any year during his career would probably feature music one would still find worthwhile today. He had a few blind spots. He never “got” Steely Dan, for example. His embrace of hip-hop and rap struck me as an unpersuasive political concession. On balance, though, he championed performers and songwriters who deserved the attention.

He was also a good reporter. His interviews were less clumsy than his reviews. His 2004 Bob Dylan interview, in which Dylan revealed his songwriting methods, was quite insightful.  Performers obviously trusted him.

Now, with Hilburn retiring, an era comes to an end.  Before Hilburn, the Times and most other newspapers did not take pop music seriously. Now, it hardly matters what newspapers say or do–the fan reviews on Amazon.com probably drive far more music purchases, and besides, via Rhapsody or iTunes, you can listen to the “inviting textures” for yourself.

3 thoughts on “Robert Hilburn, in quintessence

  1. Pingback: From the Desert to the Sea… » Blog Archive » “Say What??” Or: A Trip Down Memory Lane With Saturday’s LA Times

  2. Pingback: Calendars and resistance to change « non-sequiturs and malapropisms

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