Q & A #88 – Marc Fagel, “Jittery White Guy Music”


I ran across Marc Fagel on that great big blender of love and truth: Twitter.

I recognized his taste in music.

Next, I noted his book and ordered it immediately.

Jittery White Guy Music – True Rock & Roll Confessions from a Guy Who Bought the Album is a love letter to music. It’s a memoir of growing up with music as the underlying glue, as the interwoven fabric in day to day life, as a daily basic necessity.

Fagel needs air to breathe and music to live. Okay, let’s just tell it like it is. Fagel is a junkie. He needs his daily fix. He is the model consumer, every rock band’s dream fan. (Well, unless you happen to be Maroon 5. And a few others of that ilk.)

And he took the time to write it all down, to look back on the eye-opening, ears-smiling moment when a song or a band or tune lights a fire. He’s still at it.

A full review of JWGM follows.

First, Marc was kind enough to answer a few questions by email. Oh, and don’t forget to follow Marc on Twitter: @Marc_Fagel.


Question: Let’s start with the most horrific moment in Jittery White Guy Music, when all those cassettes were tossed. First, was there anything in that stash that was irreplaceable? A certain, special mix you’ve been unable to replicate? If you had to do it all over again, would you have succumbed to that space-saving move?

Marc Fagel: Having grown up on vinyl back in the 70s and 80s, I’m old-school—I need the tactile sensation and emotional connection of owning physical music. I still buy everything on CD (or download the music and burn it to CDR). But my listening habits are strictly digital; I rip all my CDs to hard drives and stream the music through my house or carry selected albums around on an old iPod. I find digital music much more practical, both in terms of sifting through a massive collection and minimizing clutter at home. So, sure, it was tough to toss out all my old cassettes as part of my Covid lockdown clean-up, especially some of the old mixtapes that held a lot of emotional resonance for me. But given that my cassette deck has been locked away in the crawlspace for over a decade, pragmatism won out.

Question: In his interview with Paul McCartney in a recent edition of The New Yorker, David Remnick writes: “To retrieve the memories and sensations of the past, Proust relied mainly on the taste of crumbly cakes moistened with lime-blossom tea. The rest of humanity relies on songs. Songs are emotionally charged and brief, so we remember them whole; the melody and hook, the lyrics, where we were, what we felt. And they are emotionally adhesive, especially when they’re encountered in our youth.” Do you agree? Why is it harder and harder to be surprised and jolted alive by music as we get—er, um—older? And don’t you hate that?

Marc Fagel: I still get a thrill out of new music; for me, the joy of discovering a new artist, or uncovering an old record I’d missed the first time around, hasn’t faded. But new music has become increasingly detached from associations with particular memories or experiences, so to that extent I agree with Remnick. Some of this relates to how music’s role in your life changes over time—when I was younger, there were albums that literally “changed my life,” in terms of opening me up to whole new worlds; but that hasn’t really happened in recent years (as much as there have been records I’ve absolutely adored). But I think it has more to do with memories than music; there are formative moments in our lives that we romanticize, that take on huge significance when we look back, and those are wrapped up with the entirety of their circumstances, including the music we associate with that particular time. Memories formed later in life—and I don’t want to minimize their significance—just don’t have the same sort of emotional poignancy.

If there’s one thing that’s changed about music, it’s the way we consume it. Growing up, if there was some music I wanted to hear, I’d have to hunt it down at a record store. Without much disposable income, every purchase had to be carefully considered. And there was the whole ritual of playing vinyl, exercising care not to scratch it, flipping it over midway through, and so on. These days, when I want to buy music, I click on Amazon or Bandcamp and it’s mine. To say nothing of streaming media like Spotify. It’s become almost too easy. So I don’t think we form the same emotional attachments to music we did in the pre-internet age. I can tell you everything about where and when I first heard every R.E.M. album back in the 1980s, and what was going on in my life that day; but I can’t say I have any strong associations with that time two years ago I sat down at my computer and clicked “buy” and downloaded the first Beths album, however much I love that particular record.   

Question: You reference Camper Van Beethoven but utterly fail to mention Cracker, the band that David Lowery launched with Johnny Hickman after CVB collapsed. Now is your chance to defend yourself (feel free to have Gentleman’s Blues playing in the background as you do so).

Marc Fagel: I like Cracker; they’re a more straightforward rock band than the quirky-to-a-fault Camper Van Beethoven, arguably more user-friendly (certainly “Teen Angst” is one of the definitive alt.rock tracks of the 1990s). But here’s one of those “emotional poignancy” illustrations. The CVB debut came out in my college DJ days; it was one of those records that everyone at the station went nuts about and played all the time for months. My friends and I instantly had the songs committed to memory, and we’d get drunk at parties and randomly start belting out “Take The Skinheads Bowling” or “Where The Hell Is Bill” or “Club Med Sucks.” I hear CVB and it always transports me back to that part of my life, even their later records. Whereas Cracker, who started out when I was in law school (and was more focused on other music, like the shoegaze bands of the era), don’t have that sort of associations. So for me it’s just music—good music, but still just music. And when I reach for one of my Cracker albums, something in my head says, “nah, play some Camper instead!” And I comply.

Question: Similar question. Robert Christgau put two albums by Cincinnati’s finest band, Wussy, on his list of Top 25 Albums of the 2010s. I kept waiting for Wussy to pop up in the pages of JWGM. Please explain.

Marc Fagel: I suppose I’ll get there. I really like their poppier tunes, especially the songs sung by Lisa Walker. I know them largely through their affiliation with the Paranoid Style (they did a split 7” together), and I adore the Paranoid Style. Their frontwoman, Elizabeth Nelson, is probably the most brilliant, hyper-literate lyricist since Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt (plus a top-notch journalist to boot).

Question: How do you explain what makes one music lover go nuts over a band and the next one—even though they may share 99 percent of the same musical turf—just shrug in total indifference, unmoved? Or worse, bored? It shouldn’t make sense, right?

Marc Fagel: One of the things that’s become evident since I started writing about music, both in my book and in daily blogging, is that when you’re describing a particular band or record, referencing comparable artists (the old “Recommended If You Like” [RIYL] one-line summaries from CMJ magazine) or relying on critical tropes only gets you about 90% of the way there. There’s always that last intangible bit—and I assume this is the case for any form of art—that you can’t quite put into words. Maybe it’s the timbre of the singer’s voice, or the way a particular hook or guitar tone conjures up positive or negative (but deeply personal) connotations. So someone can look at my collection and say, I’ll be you also love Spoon, or Radiohead, or Steely Dan, but… sorry, not so much. I think that indescribable, magical element is what keeps things interesting; otherwise, we’d all be slotted into our narrow genre boxes, and we’d have 100% musical overlap with friends whose taste we largely share.

Marc Fagel

Back in my college DJ days, there was this unwritten rule that you had to hate the Grateful Dead. And for the longest time I did, until—and I write about this in the book—that one day when I didn’t anymore. I love the Dead. (I just saw one of the better tribute bands, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, this past weekend, and it gave me such amazing joy, even if the fear of attending shows in the age of Covid is always lurking in the back of your mind.) And my old friends, with whom I used to see Replacements shows and crank Sonic Youth records in the dorm, just can’t understand it. And maybe it’s just because I listened to a particular Dead show in a particular state of impairment at a particular moment in time when all I needed in my life was Jerry Garcia singing “Franklin’s Tower,” but it’s something you can’t capture in words.

Question: Okay you’ve got some good-looking books in your Twitter banner photo. Favorite memoirs? Favorite rock critics? Favorite books about music?

Marc Fagel: I ended up reading a lot of rock memoirs over the past couple years; it was a helpful diversion from the twin horrors that dominated my news feed (Covid and Trump). My favorite may be Black Postcards, by Dean Wareham (of Galaxie 500 and Luna). It has more of a gritty, you-are-there quality than most, or maybe I just find books by artists who never quite achieved the success they deserved far more interesting than those from actual rock stars. Plus he’s an incredibly intelligent guy and astute writer, even if he went to that lesser Ivy. I really enjoyed Amy Rigby and Jeff Tweedy’s books as well. And I loved Liz Phair’s Horror Stories, which reads more like a collection of beautifully-crafted observational essays than a traditional rock memoir. Surprisingly or not, a lot of my favorite lyricists turn out to be pretty great with prose as well.

Shortly after finishing JWGM, I went looking for other books in a similar vein just to figure out what to do with the damn thing. I came across Love Is A Mix Tape, by Rolling Stone critic Rob Sheffield, and it was wonderful. He also used musical touchstones to share deeply personal stories, though obviously much more poignantly than I could, given that he’s a “real” music writer and I’m just sort of faking it. Steven Hyden’s Twilight Of The Gods is another one that merges music criticism with personal discovery in a way that speaks to me. And I’ve got a few dozen of those 33 1/3 books where authors tackle a single record; some stick with straight history or criticism, but I like the ones that delve deeper into the author’s personal relationship with the music.

Question: Can you tell us how long it took to write Jittery White Guy Music? Was this something you had in the works for a long time? Were you at all worried you might forget one band, one album, or one song—somewhere along the way? Did you go through many drafts? And did you approach any publishers before deciding to put this out yourself?

Marc Fagel: It took about a year and a half. In summer 2018, I was a partner at a large law firm (after a long stint in the federal government), and like most frustrated litigators, I really wanted to try my hand at writing something more interesting than legal briefs. Once I came up with the concept of a personal memoir centered around the music I was listening to at various points in my life, I started sketching out ideas in my spare time. I’d jot down notes whenever something I wanted to express crossed my mind, spending a few hours on the weekend trying to flesh those out into some sort of narrative.

I ended up retiring from the legal practice in early 2019, after about 30 years, so I suddenly had blocks of time when I could sit down and do some dedicated writing. I finished the book by the end of the year, and then had to design the graphics and draft the peripheral bits and learn how to work with Amazon’s self-publishing software; I launched it at the end of January 2020 (just in time for a worldwide pandemic!).

As an attorney, I’ve always been a pretty obsessive editor, both of my own work and of drafts written by lawyers working for me. I tend to edit as I go; when I sit down to write, I’ll first re-read my most recent work and do some significant re-writing before starting something new. So I never really create “drafts”; I’m constantly reviewing and changing things until the minute it’s out the door. I’d probably still be revising the book today if my wife hadn’t pushed me to pull the trigger and let it go.

Unfortunately, once I started looking into publishing, it became pretty clear there wasn’t much of a market for what I was doing (or, to paraphrase Spinal Tap, it’s not that there was a small audience, just a highly selective one). Maybe if I were an established music critic with a large online following, but a retired securities lawyer writing about music? Not so much. (My friends and family told me I should have written a legal thriller instead.) So I opted against looking for agents or publishers and quickly settled on self-publishing just so I could put something out there in the world.

Question: Did you see the new Todd Haynes documentary on The Velvet Underground?

Marc Fagel: I did. I mostly enjoyed it. Given that it was made by Haynes, it was of course visually arresting. (Count me among those who found Velvet Goldmine, for all its ridiculousness, amazing to watch.) The music sounded great. And, frankly, I could watch Jonathan Richman interview clips for hours. I do wish they’d given a little more time to the Doug Yule era. Yes, those first two albums were absolutely revolutionary, and I’m certainly among those obsessive rock fans who had their heads turned around by hearing The Velvet Underground & Nico (as I describe in the book). But the third album, after Cale left, is my favorite, and I really enjoy Loaded as well, and it felt like Haynes treated that part of the Velvets’ career as an afterthought.

Question: Given the sheer avalanche of music today, what’s your method for keeping up, for uncovering new leads and getting new tips?

There are a few blogs and music websites which do a decent job of previewing new releases (AllMusic for one covers the more mainstream releases). I’ve made a lot of online friends on Music Twitter (yourself included), with overlapping taste, who can always be counted on with great recommendations. And I’ve discovered a lot of great music on Spotify, which I use as an on-the-go supplement to my physical collection. I recognize a lot of artists abhor Spotify, as financially it’s far from artist-friendly, but its algorithms are surprisingly effective. The more you use the service and “train it” with your personal taste, the more the playlists it creates for you provide some helpful tips on other artists worth exploring.

Question: Care to give us a preview of your top albums of 2021?

Marc Fagel: I was probably most excited that the Connells, one of my favorite bands from my college and law school days, returned with their first new album in twenty years (and it’s great). But there was a surprising amount of good music from newer artists this year. To name-check a few that nabbed a lot of time on my stereo: Ducks Ltd.; Kiwi Jr.; Bull; Blanketman; the Rose Petals; Silver Synthetic; Quivers; Triptides; Tashaki Miyaki. Vanessa Peters has been around awhile, but I really liked her new one. 



Marc Fagel is wired for music.

His dreams have soundtracks.

“Is that weird? I’m told it’s a little weird. But my more cinematic dreams, the ones that linger for a few extra moments as the sun filters into the room, are invariably scored by rock and roll, with pulsating Dolby surround, as auditory as they are visual. Often I’ll recognize the tune—something I heard that day that lodged in my brain, like an after-hours encore, like I forgot to turn off the stereo when I fell asleep and it got stuck on auto-repeat; or maybe a completely random track selected from the outskirts of my record collection, something I haven’t listened to in a while, a deep track making an unexpected appearance as if it were Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson programming the playlist—The Monkees? Why The Monkees?”

Fagel’s Jittery White Guy Music—True Rock & Roll Confessions from a Guy Who Bought the Album is a deep journey into one guy’s lifelong fixation with music. I’m not sure every music fan needs to write a book about their personal affection for certain bands and musicians, and how their tastes changed over time, but if your dreams are filled with tunes and if you collect music as voraciously as Fagel, why not?

Fagel starts with seminal tracks that opened up a whole new world (in Fagel’s case, it was Paul McCartney’s solo album Ram) and then it’s off to the personal jams and starting to hunt for songs or bands that might change your life or worldview the way that first one did.

Fagel provides plenty of examples to triangulate whether your tastes and his are going to line up—top record, The Clash’s London Calling; number 14, Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One; number 16, Grateful Dead, American Beauty.

Basically, Jittery White Guy Music, as Fagel puts it, is a chance to thumb through the records on his shelf—and follow his growth from fourth-grade Top 40 nerd to college DJ to MTV (“120 Minutes”) devotee to buffing up on shoegaze to Indie Rock. It’s also a thoughtful and self-effacing reflection on how his opinions morphed. What true fan of music hasn’t had an “a-ha” moment when the light on the road went off and you suddenly found yourself chasing down obscure bootlegs of a band you first loathed? Fagel feels you. And he’s got the about-face moments (with Wilco and The Grateful Dead) to prove it.

Fagel’s engaging style makes moments of musical discovery visceral. He writes with a great deal of humor and energy.

“Sitting there in a darkened junior high school listening room in 6th grade, headphones firmly affixed, skipping out on lunchtime recess because there was this album I just had to check out, the one that opened with that otherworldly keyboard sound … anytime I hear something new, something exciting, something that makes me think that there is a whole universe of music still awaiting discovery, I relive the raw, gushing exhilaration I felt the instant the needle touched down on the outer groove of that Who album.” (Baba O’Riley, in case you don’t remember.)

Along the way, Fagel drops overlooked nuggets including Flock of Seagulls’ “Space Age Love Song;” New Order’s “Temptation;” bands like Love Tractor, the Reivers, Dumptruck, and Rain Parade; The Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma;” Ride’s “Taste;” Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship;” The Kingsbury Manx’s “Piss Diary;” Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland 1945.” On and on. Reading Jittery White Guy Music might send you scurrying to organize a few dozen scrapbook playlists of your own. (Not a bad thing at all.)

Country? No. Funk? Barely a mention. Rap and Hip-Hop? Nope and nope. Solo singer songwriters? Far and few between. Music as politics? Seek elsewhere. Music as religion? Yes, if you believe, as I do, that certain songwriters know the secret to the universe or that live music can be so transcendent that levitation is certainly an area of physics that simply needs better scientists.

Fagel’s title is accurate. Know going in that Fagel’s rabbit holes (at least, the ones he chose to write about) are located on a particular part of the farm. That fact doesn’t dampen the pleasure of reading Fagen’s takes, whether it’s deconstructing the pleasures within The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society or catching R.E.M, in their fairly early days, in a college gymnasium. The one over-riding idea that comes through is the fun of the search, that heart-stopping jolt of excitement when you find a new band that connects, and how music has a magical, mystical way of marking time and creating moments.

“Because hearing the right music at the right time really can impact the way you relate to the world around you,” he writes. “The joy you derive from having the right accompaniment to the ordinary moments of a lifetime is not something to be taken lightly.”

Yes, for sure. Rock on.


Check out Marc Fagel’s website here including links to all his Spotify playlists.

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