Simon Sweetman – At the crossroads of being a writer and a critic

Simon Sweetman has just released his first book of poems, titled The Death of Music Journalism – an ironic but funny title considering he is known as a music critic who wrote Blog on The Tracks for the newspaper. It’s a column he keeps alive and well today. In good humour, he told Jesse Mulligan on RNZ he’d be happy to post any bad reviews of the book. Balance is important to him, he says.

His publisher Cuba Press reviewed it as – An unpredictable, anarchic, playful and surprisingly heartfelt volume from Simon Sweetman.”

At 44, Sweetman feels confident enough to say people should meet their heroes. But, remember when you meet them, they may be having a bad day and have absolutely no time for you. Don’t take that personally, he advises, even if you’ve been holding a t-shirt with their face on it for the past hour.

Sweetman delivers his poetry with the same passion for music as he does in his writing.  He says he’s always written poetry but he is glad he never released a book with the content he would have 10 or 20 years ago.

Now, he tells stories of being a music fan in verses; he recalls family car trips growing up, capturing a really relatable suburban 80’s Kiwi kid experience – buying cassette tapes on a family excursion while late night shopping with the family.

Even now, Sweetman’s mum won’t classify him as a musician unless he’s been paid for a gig. Although it’s something that used to really bug him, he said it’s become a funny part of his story. 

We talk about leaving a legacy of music to his son Oscar with his partner Katy, two people who come up a lot in his content. I’m a dad now, so I’m allowed to do dad jokes, he says. “We chose to let him listen to Eminem, but we also made sure he has a healthier diet of Jurassic 5 and De La Soul,” leaving me to think Oscar may have two of the most progressive parents in the world.

Music journalism is dead, he explains; switching lanes from critic to poet, he recalls the period writing his Stuff column as, “thankless ”. We discuss culture, which he says has its merits but can be harmful. Adding that over the years he’s observed racism as a bias that can affect who is cancelled and how, and who isn’t.

Serum: You touched on cancel culture in one interview I caught on RNZ, you were talking about one of the Manson crew, Bobby Beausoleii releasing an album from prison at 70 and Wallace Chapman, the host, was really shocked at you acknowledging one of the Manson crew as worthy of a mention. He said you were enabling Beausoleil and you answered, ‘Well, I’m trying to’…

S: Yeah I did say that, but I think I’m allowed to say that because he’s in jail, for life and if he gets out – which he may, around about now actually, he’d be about 70 and I don’t think he’ll be a danger to anyone. I think the point – apart from maybe trying to have a joke with him is that cancel culture is an absolutely fine thing to exist and it’s done a lot of good in the world but we must continue to look at these things case-by-case. I don’t think it’s helpful to have a blanket ruling and go, ‘Well I’ve heard second hand that that guy’s a bad person, so let’s just condemn everything they’ve done’  without doing any research. What I was trying to say is, ‘ hey this guy is a noted bad person – he’s in jail for life because he was part of Charles Manson’s gang and he was involved in a murder he did actually take part in’, so he is by no account the sort of person you’d think you’d like to have around for dinner and babysit the kids but wanting to hear what sort of album he might have come up with after 50 years of reflection is a different thing.. I don’t think that makes you a bad person to want to hear that.

S:What do you remember about the time you were doing your Stuff column,  Blog on the Tracks: 

S: Busy, really busy and really thankless. It was really satisfying from a personal level in terms of making myself disciplined – I really turned up and did the work – a lot of cool things happened from it,  I got a lot of jobs out of it and offers to do things and a lot of connections with people. I built a little community of people that love music and are really quite nerdy about it and I thought that was cool.

Arguably that continues with my Off the Tracks page and my Facebook page which has a lot of people that read the original Stuff blog. Hundreds of people have read that page and signed up to it so I carry that on and I share articles that I agree with and don’t which is how it should be. Like a lot of things in a writer’s life it was a lot of work for not much pay and a lot of abuse for not much in the way of thanks.

S: How long has this poetry book been in the making?

S: In a weird way I first thought about putting out a book of poems out at least 20 years ago and I’m just really glad that I didn’t. I  think it would have been terrible. I was just a teenager when I started writing

S: How did the title come about? 

S:  I might have called it ‘The Death of Journalism’, but I didn’t feel quite fully qualified to stand by that, whereas if I called it ‘The Death of Music Journalism’, I could stand by that because I have been directly affected by that.

Magazines don’t really publish music journalism anymore and I used to write a lot for magazines and then the other thing is there is an obvious heavy music scene in the book – there’s lots of mentions of music. In a way you could argue that some of the poems in this book are my version of new music journalism; this is how I’ve decided to write about music so I’m kind of signing one thing off and starting another.

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