Growing up in Los Angeles in the seventies, it was impossible not to feel the omnipresence of the Chandler’s LA Times. It had become for a time, under the direction of publisher Otis Chandler, a rival to the NY Times and Washington Post (it ranks third behind those two in terms of lifetime Pulitizers).
Robert Hilburn, Times rock music critic in ground zero for the nascent rock music business, occupied a rare position of power and influence. Tuesday, Thursday and especially Sunday Hilburn proselytized about the emerging stars in the LA (and broader) music scene in the always-fought-over-at-the-breakfast-table Calendar section of the LA Times.
Arguably he made a star of Elton John in his US debut at the Troubadour, and was able to interview Lennon, Dylan, and Bono (among others). He recounts these and other experiences in Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life (Rodale).
Truth is I never liked Hilburn. He missed the point consistently, many times. He championed Leo Sayer and David Essex as being the next big thing. Worse, he is a humorless bore of a writer, whose journalism never comes close to his peers Robert Palmer, Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, Ralph Gleason, and Nick Tosches in terms of depth or energy.
“Discovering” the talents of Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and U2 is not exactly rocket science – though reading Corn Flakes one might think so.
What is missing from the book is any sense of self-awareness of Hilburn’s limitations as a writer and how much of his “success” was primarily due to his association with the powerful Times. Rock Stars needed that vehicle, and I think in some cases he was played. Reflections of this nature are nowhere in this book. He does say his over-zealousness for music led to some miscalculations. No specifics provided – surely there must be one self-deprecating anecdote, somewhere, that would garner empathy while providing insight into the time and position he had. None. Just a collage of celebrity envy with no real musical analysis. Sloppy journalism.
Despite all this, there is no denying he did have access to a coterie of fascinating personalities. Fans of those stars and that era, may want to revisit them here. The Lennon chocolate bar story is sweet and makes us miss him even more. The Dylan born-again stuff is interesting. It’s all been told before.
Mostly, with Corn Flakes, I was brought back to those Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays when I read his column – and was frustrated all over again. Couldn’t the LA Times have done better?