How to Stop Lying
Often when I read personal writing (memoirs, thinly veiled autofiction, or people’s tweets about their precocious children), I get distracted by a feeling probably best described by 50 Cent in his 2001 Ja Rule diss track Life’s on the Line: “I don’t believe you!” This may be an unfortunate side effect of working as an editor. You become so familiar with the subtle methods of contrivance that you start to see them everywhere. But perhaps it’s not all in my head. A lot of terminally online authors—torn between their bubble, their brand, and their soft mammal underbelly—do seem to have trouble writing about themselves in an honest, unmediated way.
Sasha Frere-Jones evidently does not have this problem. The writer-musician just dropped Earlier, a memoir that stands out—and pulls in the reader—by not trying too hard. Frere-Jones is one of the preeminent music writers of our time, but his approach here is unassuming: A man sits down next to you and unspools his life in no apparent order. Luckily, he has a funny way about him, and his stories are interesting. He takes you back to old New York, before it was overrun by trustafarians. He tells you about every time he fell in love and all the weird jobs he ever had; and by the end, you are left thinking about all the discoveries and losses that punctuate a human life.
In Earlier, we meet a narrator who seems to have lost his ability to bullshit. There are particular reasons for this honest turn, related to sobriety and loss, as I learned in conversation with Frere-Jones at our Second Sunday event last month. We also talked about survivor literature, shitty media jobs, and how to avoid the nostalgia trap.
As a writer, you’re perhaps best known as a profiler of others. Why did you choose to turn the gaze on yourself?
Deborah Holmes—the mother of my children, my friend, whom I was with for 15 years—was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, stage four, lights out, on her 57th birthday: July 31st, 2020. We divorced in 2006, which I add because I am married now to someone else. It would not be accurate to say “My wife died,” and saying “My ex-wife died” sounds gross.
Deborah was unsentimental but she was also very tender. She didn't want to see me in person after she got sick because she thought it would be too upsetting. So I asked her [on the phone]: "Is there anything I can do?" I had no plan in mind. I said, a little bit surprising myself, “Can I write something for you?” She said, "Oh!"—it was obvious that she hadn't considered it—but then she had an idea. She said, "Well, you should finish that memoir I've always hoped that you would write." And I was like, "Fuck yeah, let's go." I hung up the phone and started writing all day, every day. I gathered every story I'd ever told her that I knew that she would enjoy and put it into a book. It was done in about six weeks. We had 15 copies printed. It was the last book she read.
Did you feel like you were writing to her or for her?
I was imagining her reading it. I wasn't imagining anybody else at that point. I wasn't even one hundred percent sure I would want it to be published, which I think is why I wasn't worrying that much. The version we published is 20 or 30 percent different, because I took out some insults [against third parties] and added some sections about her. There was nothing about her dying in the version she read, because I wanted to entertain her and tell stories I knew she liked.
How did you pool all of these memories?
I wrote out a version of every event that seemed to fit together. There's very little that I ended up taking out. The verb tense was really important. There’s no actual past when we experience events—remembering happens in the present tense. I wanted to capture the memories that I have in real time: now. I didn't want to add wisdom I hadn’t known in the moment. I tried to be strict about that. If I added something to gild the lily and make myself seem smarter, I deleted it. I was happy to talk to somebody to fact-check a story, but I didn't want to have a conversation and then go write something new based on that, because the book is built from the memories I actually have.
It’s tempting to give things more definition than they have. I think one of the special things about your book is that you chose not to do any of that. You’re not trying to sell me on anything. Why were you strict about that?
I tried to write this memoir in 2010. I wrote around 20 or 30 pages. I was probably quite drunk. I wanted to make everything seem super cool and weird and interesting. It was terrible. But it was also instructive. I'm a sober person and something I often say about drinking is that it’s very connected to lying. When you’re drinking, you lie a lot. You talk a lot of trash and you really can't stand behind a lot of the stuff you say.
Sobriety had a lot to do with the writing of this book. I've been going to meetings every day for a long time and I've gotten used to the idea of being honest—or, as we say [in the program], “telling on myself.” I didn’t want to judge myself or the reader, which often meant being kinder to myself than my brain wants to be. We have a phrase in the program, "The piece of shit at the center of the universe." You're incredibly full of yourself but also way too hard on yourself, when you're actually just another bozo on the bus. I was trying to be the bozo on the bus. I wanted it to feel like I was telling the truth that is in my head, or in my head quietly hiding from all the terrible voices yelling at me.
Beyond this honest turn, did getting sober change the writing process itself?
Absolutely, one hundred percent. My life changed. I went to rehab in 2019, 2020 brought the pandemic and the uprising, and then Deborah died at the beginning of 2021. Those three things completely changed—not what I thought and felt because all of that stuff was there before—but how beautiful things resonated in my body.
I think this “don’t add later conclusions” is so essential to good biographical writing. I’ve thought about this in the context of survivor literature. Hungarian Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz was in Auschwitz as a teenager, and Fatelessness, his novel about the experience, stands out from almost all other major Holocaust novels because he insists on capturing the experience without offering any context he didn’t know at the time. His young narrator doesn’t know where he’s ended up or the history he is a part of. He is impressed by an SS man’s uniform. That’s awful to contemplate, but it’s also the way people are. There’s something very powerful about refusing dramatization.
That's a perfect way of putting it. Think of how we tell our stories of 9/11. I don’t want to spoil how I deal with that moment in the book but basically, I was with my son, Sam, at Bleecker and Sixth Ave, on our way to his preschool. He was on my shoulders and we were watching what was going on. Until the second plane hit, we were just looking at a bunch of weird smoke from the World Trade Center. We thought it was a helicopter. Up to that moment, that’s how it went. It's New York and fucked up shit happens. Usually, it isn’t that bad. That day was different.
I think the reader wants to feel that the writer is not bullshitting them. I don't want to read a review of a book where they're afraid to tell me what they think or they're trying to impress somebody or not insult somebody's friend. You want someone to be giving you what they know to be true, to the best of their ability. Of course, it's astonishing how many people do the opposite of that.
How has the process of writing about your life changed how you think about it? Does the act of working over a memory change its place in your mind?
I've read, but also experienced, that memory is just like a tape that we write and rewrite and overwrite. It's incredible when you go back and find out how true your memory is—sometimes it’s weirdly accurate and sometimes it’s totally out to lunch. Writing things down does “fix” a moment in time, and it also makes them a little bit easier to leave behind, which is a really healthy feeling to me.
Deborah and I got together on January 1st, 1990. Throughout the ’90s, we were together almost every single day. We also worked together for a chunk of that time. When she died, my ’90s basically disappeared. Obviously, the guys in my band remember stuff, and I have friends. But we had Sam in 1997, which is when my dad died. There's a chunk of time, a huge chunk of time that just disappeared; I can't talk to anyone about it. I'm going to be wrestling with that for a while.
That's separate from missing Deborah, which is its own thing, but most people don't think about the ability, the privilege, the gift of being able to discuss your memories with someone else who's holding the other end. When Deborah died, it really did feel like this trunk fell into the ocean that I can't get back. It's gone. So I'm in charge of the remembering.
One of the good things about writing a memoir is that you can help others remember. I felt that throughout the book. Your memories would loosen up old memories of mine—sometimes because I had a similar experience, other times, because of how you described a feeling. The way you write about New York made me think about the Berlin I grew up in, and what we lost by becoming a world city. What role does nostalgia play in your book? How much of it do you permit yourself?
It's a great question. I don't think I like the idea of being nostalgic because I'm driven crazy by people who think that anything was better at another time. Then, of course, I'm always sort of at war with myself around this era of New York. It's all rich kids now and everything smells like fancy weed. I liked how that dirt weed smelled, the shit you’d get from guys in Washington Square Park saying, “Sess, sess.”
I try not to confuse things that I like for things that are significant. Those are two different things. I don't like nostalgia, but I can't help the fact that there are things that I miss and that I love. I want to be able to indulge in that, to give myself the treat of that little ego snack, but also not become confused and calcified until I’m one of those crabby people. NYC was also really gross and dangerous in the ’90s; lots of drunkards were running around and harassing people, and there was tons of terrible shit going on. Something is always going up and something is always going down.
Yeah, I think you avoid nostalgia by not editorializing at all. It’s more like: this is the way things were here and they had value. I love the way you describe old customs around bike theft in your neighborhood.
Yeah, crime was very local, so if a kid around the corner stole your bike who you knew, it would be like, "Well, fuck, I'll just go to his house." And it's not like they would always give you back your bike, but if their mom was home, there was a good chance they'd smack them in the head and give you your bike back. I somehow never lost the yellow bike I had, and it was taken from me a couple of times.
Do you think that growing up with the means that you and your family had back then would even be possible in the city today?
It's hard to say what that means exactly, because money was such a weird thing for us. We seemed to have it, and then it was gone. I didn't know anyone else who went to work when they were 13. I had to pay my own tuition. It was fucked up, but it was also incredibly empowering. I realized, "Oh, it's not that hard to get a job.” I could find service jobs, messenger jobs, food service, even office jobs in the ’90s. If you needed money, there was a way to get money. After about a week or two, I loved it, and I was like, I've cracked the code. I was 13. I was invincible.
Some of the funniest bits in the book, in my opinion, are about the perks and degradations of being a music writer. They raise an obvious question for me. Looking over your clips, you’ve profiled some of the greatest living musicians. And yet, in the book, you don’t cover inspiring moments from successful interviews with Brian Eno or whatever. Instead, you talk about not getting health care, about being humiliated by Prince, or getting a sneak preview of Chris Cornell’s disastrous collaboration with Timbaland. Why did you focus on the pitfalls rather than the perks?
I mean, what makes us interesting is our failures. And people don't want to read things like, "Ah, yes, I came home from hanging out with Leslie Feist and man, that felt good." No one wants to fucking read that.
Fair. I think it says something interesting about the role of the journalist. We often live like shit but have access to these important people. What did you learn from this work about how being rich and famous changes a person?
I think people are mostly the same. But I do have a story that answers your question. At some point I was writing a piece about Neil Diamond, and Rick Rubin and I had established a friendship. He produced Neil Diamond’s record, and he said, "Come see Neil with me." I was like, "Hell yeah, let's go." And I had this thought at the time: they're kind of like other people except there are things that they don't do. It struck me the moment that we went into a side door at Madison Square Garden, and we went through one door and through another door and then another door, and people were walking with us and we walked all the way from the car to our seats. It took only about three or four minutes. And I was like, "Okay, I have never in my life gone to a place and had my flow completely unimpeded."
Yeah, it’s like the airport fast track but for absolutely everything. How has your role as a music critic changed over the years? Has sobriety changed what kind of music you like?
Yeah. Being a pop critic means that you have to be a generalist, which is something I like the idea of, but isn’t true for me. I think of myself as liking lots of kinds of music, but I don’t want to hear everything. And especially now that I'm both older and sober, I want to hear what I like. I have love for the metal community, but I don't listen to metal. I listen to what I want to listen to. When I listen to music now, stuff that I put in the radio show or in my newsletter, it isn’t coming from trying to “cover the beat, today in pop.”
I'm trying to unlearn being a journalist because there are a lot of things about it that I have found frustrating, and I feel like I've spent a little bit too much time in that particular donut shop. Journalism is something I did to pay the rent. I don't reread my old pieces. If there are any good ones in there, that's not really my problem. I did what I could. But this book, I've reread it. To me, this is my debut. I'm 56—that's weird.
I love that. We’re almost out of time here. I’d love to end with a little anecdote about how your good taste has benefited me personally. Around ten years ago, I did that clever thing where I fell in love with someone that I had absolutely nothing in common with. We communicated mostly through cute animal videos and playlists. I didn’t know a lot of music at that time outside of rap and R&B so I became a full-time digger. Anyway, you were one of the only music critics that I knew of, and I decided I respected your taste because you had “Where I’m From” by Jay-Z on your Perfect Recordings playlist. I ended up pilfering dozens of songs from your Spotify and turning them into slightly manipulative mixes. We stayed together for like six months just off the strength of your playlists. If that isn’t an endorsement, I don't know what is.
That's the only guarantee I have, kids. Six months. ♦
This conversation aired on October 1st, 2023, during the Second Sundays Broadcast Live Hour on 8 Ball Radio. It has been edited for length and clarity.
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