DeRogatis Defects to Rolling Stone

Ignore the troubling little signs of dissatisfaction. They aren’t significant. Ignore the paper flag Jim DeRogatis flew over his desk that said “This Place Sucks.” He didn’t mean the Place–the Great Enterprise that is the Chicago Sun-Times. He meant the place, the patch of carpet into which the features department was squeezed in its fifth move in the three and a half years DeRogatis has been at the paper.

“We’re 30 people shoehorned into a space that could comfortably house 10. It kind of says something to you,” DeRogatis told me.

But disgruntlement’s not the reason the Sun-Times’s pop music editor has resigned, effective the end of September. He was proud of his work at the Sun-Times. “You have a short, sharp shock to deliver every morning, but there’s room for intelligent criticism in the form of a snappy, in-your-face tabloid story,” he explained. “Rock and roll’s nothing but attitude, and that was the slogan of the Sun-Times when I got here.”

Keith Moerer, the new music editor of Rolling Stone, has asked DeRogatis to join him in New York as senior editor. He’ll run “pretty much the meat of the magazine, except for the feature well.”

DeRogatis said, “It’s a call that only comes once. Rolling Stone is the top of the game.”

Yet DeRogatis believes that Moerer, a friend he knows from their days at Request magazine in Minneapolis a few years back, has his work cut out for him. “His charge is to bring back some of the news drive that’s been missing in their pages a long time,” DeRogatis said, “and try to compete with Spin, and bring the magazine into the 90s. I guess they want to get in touch with Generation X, whatever that is–the kids we’ve been talking to on Q101. Rolling Stone is good journalism, but I don’t think they’ve been extraordinary journalism for a while.”

DeRogatis is going to a shop where, as he puts it, you can “spend a week on the road with Pearl Jam and do the ultimate Ticketmaster story.” At least in theory you can. The problem is, such a story would be an example of the “extraordinary journalism” Rolling Stone isn’t committed to anymore. Moerer’s supposed to restore lost vigor, but soured readers wonder how much freedom editor-publisher Jann Wenner will actually give him.

At any rate, DeRogatis leaves behind austerity so severe he didn’t have an office of his own to listen to music in. He’s 31, though, on the far side of Generation X, and I wondered if he needs to make himself a little younger to get on top of his new job.

“Robert Christgau at the Village Voice is now in his mid-50s,” DeRogatis said. “He slept on the ground at Woodstock for three days. He hasn’t slowed down a bit. I think if you’re a serious enough journalist there’s no reason the beat’s limited. The way I look at the rock-and-roll beat is the way I look at the religion beat. It went from covering bingo to being at the very center of our cultural life, with abortion, the fundamentalist movement, Farrakhan. I think that living at a time when a president has rock-and-roll bands, albeit awful ones, playing at his inauguration, the music beat is every bit as important as any other. If people were listening to what was coming out of Los Angeles, the riots after Rodney King wouldn’t have been such a surprise. That stuff was being written about in the music for years. I think the challenge for a writer my age in the music beat is to bridge the gap and explain the new to slightly older readers and give a sense of history to younger readers. Nine Inch Nails didn’t come from a vacuum.”

Because radio doesn’t trouble itself with lame ducks, DeRogatis said he and the Reader’s Bill Wyman figured last Sunday’s show on Q101 would be their last. That’s why he didn’t give notice until it was over. “I just got the note this morning,” program director Bill Gamble said Monday. “As far as I know they’ll still be on this weekend.” Gamble said he’s not worried by what DeRogatis and Wyman might say over the air since they’re leaving anyway. “They trash us as it is.”

Back to the Chain Gang

I don’t know why so many voices have stayed silent till now, but at last a journalist has spoken out against the new chain gangs of the south with the proper anger and contempt.

When chain gangs returned last month to Alabama, Brent Staples wrote last Sunday in the New York Times Magazine, “a tent was erected where reporters could sip cold lemonade in shaded comfort while the prisoners struggled under 10-pound sledgehammers in the blazing sun.” The rock breaking these prisoners do is useless; prison bosses don’t pretend otherwise. “The real reason for stretching legions of chained, white-suited men for a mile or so along the highway,” Staples observed, “is to let motorists gorge on a visible symbol of punishment and humiliation. Hanging, too, was once a public entertainment. No one should be surprised if some ambitious politician suggests making it so again.”

To Staples, the return of the chain gangs “signals an end to the fiction of rehabilitation and a resurgence of the American appetite for spectacles of punishment and humiliation.” It also signals, if not a return to the racist southern society of yore, then at least an overt nostalgia for it. Staples wrote, “I love seeing ’em in chains,’ one elderly white woman said. “They ought to make them pick cotton.”‘

Something’s come full circle. “The chain-gang, which had dragged convicts across the whole of France, as far as Brest and Toulon, was replaced in 1837 by inconspicuous black-painted cell-carts,” Michel Foucault wrote in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. “Punishment had gradually ceased to be a spectacle.”

The reasons were moral and aesthetic. The “theatrical elements” of the punishment had become hard to distinguish from the crime. “It was as if the punishment was thought to equal, if not to exceed, in savagery the crime itself, to accustom the spectators to a ferocity from which one wished to divert them, to show them the frequency of crime, to make the executioner resemble a criminal, judges murderers, to reverse roles at the last moment, to make the tortured criminal an object of pity or admiration.”

Chain gangs in America disappeared a century later than they did in France. Now they’re back. The shackled prisoners in Alabama, Staples observed, “were eager to be photographed, hoping that a shocked citizenry would rally to the rescue.” No sign of that yet.

Remebering Yuenger and Hanson

It’s a sad time when the favored bars of journalists close, but with all due respect to Riccardo’s it’s not nearly so sad as when their friends die. I knew both Jim Yuenger and Henry Hanson somewhat as people, but forgive me if I describe them as exemplars. Yuenger, massive and crimson-faced, was the dreadnought correspondent who swept in and out of the world’s wars for the Tribune and became its foreign editor. “After a while you get a little tired of ducking,” he said in a 1991 speech made available at this week’s memorial service. “But if there is anything I am sure of in this world, it is that there will always be more wars–and I really don’t know why. I only know that it is so. And I hate it.”

Hanson was the slight, jaunty man in a flat cap, the inquisitive boulevardier, who long ago covered politics for the Daily News and more recently culture and society as Chicago magazine’s Upfront columnist. His editor once wrote about him, “To walk the streets with Hanson . . . is to be swarmed with handshakers–all reaching past you.” Hanson himself wrote in 1985, “Walking from the office to a late afternoon mass for reporters at Holy Name Cathedral recently, Upfront smelled greed, suffering, and venality oozing over the curb like exhaust from rush-hour traffic.” Inside the church Hanson felt he was “sailing on an ark–safe from the rains of disdain that flood newsmen,” and he listened happily as Cardinal Bernardin “exalted grown-ups who still see events with the eyes of a child.”

It’s not so much the eyes that separate the best reporters from many other people as it is the childlike portion of their souls, which have never gone numb to either deep joy or pain. Yuenger, as a eulogist recalled this week, kept a bird manual and recorded the ones he’d spotted in a log. Hanson painted superbly. Over his typewriter he hung the cold wisdom of Beckett: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

News Bites

According to the box that runs daily, the Cubs are still contenders in the thrilling NL race for the wild-card gonfalon. But forget it–the Sun-Times has pulled the plug. The Sun-Times covered the Cubs by TV out in San Diego last weekend, and when the team moved on to Houston rented a stringer. Meanwhile the Cubs beat reporter at the Tribune, Joseph Reaves, suddenly quit when his wife took a job in Japan. His replacement’s Mike Hirsley, briefly a sports feature writer and prior to that his paper’s religion writer.

David Jackson, a Tribune investigative reporter (and former Reader contributor), is joining the paper’s Washington bureau in November. His wife Rebecca Carr was a Sun-Times reporter until last Friday. She’s going to work for Congressional Quarterly.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.