Letterbox #4: The Dallas Observer years, 1997-1999

I am still on hiatus. This is yet another addition to my ongoing “Letterbox” posts, which rerun pieces that I wrote in comments sections and forums elsewhere, that I think would serve well here. These pieces are edited silently to correct typos and factual errors.

Back in the mid-1990s, I read my local alt-weekly, the Dallas Observer religiously for the film criticism of the young Matt Zoller Seitz and the caustic, funny music reviews by Robert Wilonsky. Recently, I did my once-a-year ego stroke, whereby I Googled myself. These turned up. I had half-forgotten that I’d written them, much less that they had been printed. At the time, during my college years, I thought I was at the height of cool—four letters published in the Observer, man! What a portfolio builder!

Now… yikes. Still, one of ‘em makes me smile. In the 18 March 1999 issue, the paper published an interminable slog of a “piece” intended as snarky rules for (local) rock stars. I’ve always thought “list” articles were lazy and this one went on forever.  So, I responded, pithily. I even still believe most of this letter. There’s some Dallas inside baseball—for about three years, the music column couldn’t go a week without name-dropping The Band or Dallas rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson. Anyway, here it is.

Critics’ rules (March 18, 1999)

I was inspired by “The rules of rock” [March 11, 1999], so I thought the critics could also use a few pointers. So if you wanna be a rock and roll critic, listen up:

1. I love The Band. Most people love The Band. Most people know of The Band’s significance. Consequently, nobody needs 10 references to The Band in each week’s music section. We get the point—move on.

2. Same goes for Ronnie Dawson.

3. Hanson, N’Sync, Backstreet Boys, and the Spice Girls are easy targets. Don’t waste your time criticizing them—it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

4. Don’t make insipid jokes about drummers. As Levon Helm, Ginger Baker, and Earl Harvin proved, drummers are just as important as any other band members.

5. And don’t tell us that bassists are unimportant. Paul McCartney and Bootsy Collins proved you wrong 30 years ago.

6. Do not ever describe a band by alluding to 10 other bands. If you find yourself writing something like “they remind me of Pavement mixed with Neutral Milk Hotel, with a little jangle from early R.E.M. (by way of Uncle Tupelo),” hit the DELETE button and quit your job.

7. Terms that should never be used to describe a group: “meta-,” “post-,” “indie,” “lo-fi,” “art-rock,” “avant-garde.”

8. Nobody cares about music-label mergers except musicians and music critics. You’re a music critic, not a music-industry critic. Assume that we’re smart enough to know how shady the music business is.

9. For that matter, don’t be so damned cynical. Every generation has its share of crappy music. Likewise, every generation has a few groups that blow our minds and make it all worthwhile.

10. Don’t lump Phish, the Grateful Dead, Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band, Medeski Martin & Wood, and Widespread Panic into the same category. Don’t lump any band into a meaningless category just to fit the needs of your article.

11. Don’t use “noodle” to describe the fans of any band. In fact, don’t waste our time by describing music fans.

12. It’s OK to wax orgasmic about a particular band. It’s not OK to actually write “orgasmic” in your article.

13. Don’t refuse to write about bands with turntables or bands without guitars. There’s a reason nobody knows about Dallas’ hip-hop scene.

14. Don’t wear a goatee. Don’t wear black. Don’t chain-smoke. And don’t drink coffee.

15. Don’t waste your readers’ time with snide, cynical “how-to” lists. Nobody cares how bitter you are, and we’d rather be listening to some good tunes.

Walter Biggins, via email


If you’re interested, the Dallas Observer still includes links to my other published letters in the newspaper: 1) a defense of the Observer’s music critic, Robert Wilonsky; 2) a point of clarification re: jam bands and George Clinton; and 3) a tsk-tsking of Wilonsky for vilifying Korn fans, of all things. No permalinks, so you’ll have to scroll down or do a page search for my name. It’s all juvenilia, folks, but it ain’t all bad.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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