A Conversation With David Hajdu

The music critic for The Nation discusses his new role as a lyricist and how it's changed him as a writer

David Hajdu. (Photo by Matthew Kassel)

David Hajdu. (Photo by Matthew Kassel)

David Hajdu is the music critic for The Nation and the author of several books, including Lush Life, a biography of Billy Strayhorn, and Positively Fourth Street, on the folk movement of the 1960s. Recently, Mr. Hajdu decided to make songs himself rather than critique them. He wrote the lyrics—and some of the music—for the new album Waiting for the Angel, which comes out August 28 on the Miranda Music label.

Mr. Hajdu, who is also a professor of journalism at Columbia University, collaborated with the pianists Renee Rosnes and Fred Hersch as well as the singer Jill Sobule and the composer Michael Leonard to produce eleven songs. He had previously worked with Ms. Sobule on an album, released last year, called Dottie’s Charms.

Waiting for the Angel will be performed at Rockwood Music Hall on September 2. The album leans stylistically toward jazz, and features a variety of singers, including Jo Lawry, Michael Winther and Karen Oberlin, who is Mr. Hajdu’s wife. Mr. Hajdu’s lyrics are vivid, with grim, mordant undertones. On a recent afternoon, we met at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, around the corner from his Upper West Side apartment. Over coffee and strudel, we discussed his career in magazines, the songwriting process, and how it may have changed him as a critic.

As a critic, do you feel more sympathetic to the musical process now that you’ve taken part in it?

I’ve never thought it was easy. And I’ve always played for myself. But there’s a huge difference between playing for your own satisfaction and putting yourself out there. So yeah, I do, I have to say candidly, I do have a much deeper appreciation of the difficulty of the task. I do, I do. And I haven’t said this to anybody yet, but it has changed me as a critic. I wrote about Philip Glass again for The Nation, and I really wrote about him with a different set of ears.

I hope you’re not getting too soft, because I have enjoyed the swing of your hatchet.

Oh, thanks. Well, I’ll still be a badass when the situation calls for it.

You left The New Republic during the mass exodus in December. Are you happy to be at The Nation now?

This is something I’ve wanted to say, but nobody’s asked me so I can finally say it: Writing for The Nation after writing for The New Republic for twelve years is like, your wife dies so you marry her sister. But then you start to realize that you sort of always had a crush on her the whole time, you know? Because I’m really happy there. Katrina vanden Heuvel is great; my direct editor John Palatella is great, too. Nobody is Leon Wieseltier, though. I will treasure my relationship with Leon for the rest of my life. It was the gift of a lifetime to work with him.

How did you benefit from working with him?

Something happened knowing that the person reading me was that man. He barely ever touched my copy; he rarely called for revisions; there was hardly any back and forth. I remember, early on, I had a reference to Adorno, and I wrote “German theorist Theodor Adorno.” He crossed out “German theorist Theodor” and said, “Don’t patronize our readers.” I thought that was great.

I’m curious about your time as an editor at Entertainment Weekly in the 90s. There’s kind of a cultish glow around the magazine, like Spy in the 80s. 

I was there for the first nine years, and it was a great time. The first editor was Jeff Jarvis. He lasted, I think, an issue and a half or something like that, and then an old Time Inc. editor, Jim Seymour, was brought in. The word was that Time Inc. thought the magazine was doomed, so they brought in an old-timer to put out to pasture. But they underestimated him, and he was terrificWe had lots of stuff with a high babelicious quotient, but we mixed it up. I had Dizzy Gillespie write an essay about Charlie Parker. I had Donna Tartt writing for us. I had Artie Shaw write a piece about Glenn Miller, who I never liked.

So that was my day job, and all that time I was researching Lush Life, which I started working on in the 80s when I was the music critic for The Hollywood Reporter. That was great training, where I’m sort of running around covering, like, three or four shows a week, filing overnight. I did all the New York music—jazz, opera, classical—for the Reporter, and it was a beautiful job because no one in Hollywood cared about New York music, so I had no readers. It was really very liberating.

So Billy Strayhorn was kind of your secret companion during those years. What did you do before the Reporter?

I started, right out of college, in trade magazines. You start where you can and you make your way, so I did that. I was an editor at a trade magazine called Consumer Electronics Monthly. I put in some time there, and then that company started a consumer magazine called Video Review, and we reviewed the new form of entertainment delivery, home video. I was the editor of that. I was 24 or 25, and I was the top editor of a magazine. The beauty of that was, I’m now editing reviews of every kind of entertainment—movies, television, music, dance, opera. I had a great pool of writers, too. I used Robert Christgau to review rock; Clive Barnes was reviewing dance; Rex Reed was reviewing movies; Andrew Sarris was reviewing movies.

That sounds great. Gary Giddins had a column like that in The Sun, and I guess J. Hoberman does that for the Times, but it seems sort of like an antiquated thing now.

It’s hard to describe it in a way that doesn’t sound self-congratulatory, because it’s not that big a deal, but I was the editor. And I learned a lot from editing Sarris and Christgau. Oh, Jon Pareles was writing for me, and Jon didn’t have a VCR, so he would have to come to my house and we’d watch things together.

I started thinking about writing songs then. This is something I’ve told literally like four people in my life. I had an inflated idea of my ability in a way that young people are susceptible to. I thought I could write lyrics, and I thought, I’ll ask Harold Arlen. Maybe he wants to write with me. He was alive at the time—just barely. I’m a kid and he’s a very old man, so I wrote up some lyrics, and I sent them in the mail, in a way that’s just so naive and deluded!

One day I came back from lunch at Video Review, and there’s a little slip that says, “While you were out, Harold Arlen called,” with his phone number. I called him back, and I got his assistant, who said, Oh, Mr. Arlen read your lyrics and, you know, he’s very interested in talking to you, but he’s not well right now and when he gets better he’ll give you a call. That never happened.

The collaboration that wasn’t meant to be.

I mean, he never would have done it, and I was just a kid.

What was the song called?

Oh, what did I send him? It was called “Monogamous Guy.” “That’s why I’m a monogamous guy.” It was really quite bad. I mean, he really was just being nice; he deflected me with kindness.

So did you continue writing songs after that?

No, I pretty much gave up. Well, I shouldn’t say I gave up because I never started. I had this little sort of blippy, inchoate interest at one point briefly, and then I never pursued it, mainly because I had other passions that really dominated. I wanted to write books and I wanted to do criticism. It’s not like I always wanted to write songs and I failed and came back to it. But you would find, if we spent the day together, that I talk a lot about songs. Like, I really care about songs. I talk a lot about songcraft, like how songs are constructed, what works, what doesn’t work, how they’re successful, what lyrics speak to me. I’m obsessed, and I always have been. That’s what’s driven all my work, and the outlet all these years has been criticism and history.

Jill [Sobule] said to me at one point, You really should write songs yourself; it’s all you think about, why don’t you do it? I said, I can’t do that, I don’t have the calling, and she said, literally, Well, if thinking about something all day isn’t a calling, I don’t know what is.

Sure, why not.

So then we wrote the song “The Angel in the Attic,” which is on the album.

What is that about?

It’s about sexual abuse and suicide.

Oh.

It’s a very dark song, a work of the imagination. And this is something I wouldn’t mind talking about. Most of the work is imaginative. And I object to the idea that’s now part of the way that people think about songs today, that songs should be autobiographical, or they should be an expression of your own life.

Is that what people think?

A lot of people are susceptible to that kind of thinking today. They hear a song and think, Oh, it should be about you, your life, your experience. I think it should come from within, should draw on your feelings and your beliefs, your convictions, your experiences, your ideas, your thoughts—but should not be limited to your own experiences. A work of the imagination should be imaginative.

Not that there’s anything wrong with autobiographical songwriting. Perhaps my favorite songwriter of all time is Joni Mitchell, and much of that work—though not all—is autobiographical. And pointedly so, and obliquely so. But I believe strongly that it’s not all that songwriting should be. So this is a work of the imagination. It’s an imagined song about a girl who’s a victim of sexual abuse by her uncle, and she’s locked in the attic and jumps out the window. The meaning is indirect.

Why indirect?

It’s the way I like to write, and it’s what I’m interested in writing. And I think it’s a good way to write, to leave a little work for the listener. After I wrote Lush Life, I found people saying they came away thinking that there was a psychosexual dynamic in the relationship between Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington—not that they were lovers because there’s no reason to think that they were. But they’d say, I can’t find it anywhere in the book; where is that? Well, it’s there, two levels below the text. It’s there, but it’s there on the level of subtext and suggestion, and there’s a lot like that in Positively Fourth Street, too. So working in a poetic form, I think, frees you, and one of the things I’m loving about working in this form is that I’m freer to work in the realm of suggestion.

It seems, though, like a lot of your songs would be interpreted as autobiographical because they’re so specific.

Some are, and some are historical. Specificity is good, in fiction or nonfiction. Nabokov is specific in Lolita and he’s not Humbert—I don’t think. But it’s all that specificity that gives it its veracity and its credibility and its life.

“Who Do You Belong To,” the opening song, is a morphing together of things. The actual line in the hook comes from an experience Fred Hersch’s mother had with him when he was a little kid. His mother was in the grocery store and somebody said to him, Who’s little boy are you? And he said, I’m nobody’s, I’m my own. So I took that idea and mashed it together with some memories of my own experiences. There was a little diner on Route 22 in New Jersey where my mother worked as a waitress, and I would go after school and meet her there. That was my time with my mom because she worked three to eleven. I never really knew my mother; I would go after school, sit at the counter, and I’d watch her. She’d buy me a piece of pie.

I feel like a lot of the songs are sort of about innocence, or innocence beginning to be lost, or just being taken, with the sexual abuse thing.

That’s a very good reading of it.

Any reason that’s the throughline? Is that something you like to think about?

Songs began to mean the most to me at 13 or 14. And I think that songs tend to mean the most to people at that age. There’s actually a little brain science on this. Our taste in music kind of forms then, and music is essential to our social life at 13 or 14. A lot of the songs take place around that time.

What songs did you listen to when you were growing up?

I had an older brother and an older sister. My older brother was 9 years older than me, so he’s playing Dylan, and lecturing me in the way that an older brother can. I was a happy beneficiary of that. My sister was more of a like a Patty Duke, Sixties teenager type, so out of her room I hear wafting “Cool Jerk” and The Temptations and lot of dance music. I listened to all of that. Early on I liked things in between. There’s this incredibly bad pretentious song called “Elusive Butterfly,” by Bob Lind. It’s awful. It’s some kind of morphing of Dylan and The Association or something. “I chase the bright elusive butterfly of love.” It’s appallingly bad, but I can’t resist it.

I have to say, and I hope this has no relationship to my music whatsoever, but I have to say that I’m really drawn to art that’s not fully successful. I have a big collection of bad paintings. Not outsider art, nothing so so hifalutin or serious—just bad paintings. And I’m really attracted to the struggle for expression in these paintings. Proportions are way off. You see them trying to do something, and they can’t quite do it, and I find that really attractive. But I hope there’s a not a hint of any such thing in my music

Speaking of which, do you feel a higher sense of vulnerability having written these songs? I mean, you’re a pretty tough critic.

Oh my god! What somebody should do—and it would not be hard—it would be very easy to round up a big group of all the people I’ve criticized severely. I mean, call John Zorn and Philip Glass.

Sting.

Sting. I mean, I called John Zorn a fraud in print, and I think I was too harsh on John Zorn. I’m going to write about him again because, I think I was fair with the music I dealt with, but there’s a lot of his music I didn’t deal with, and to deal with that fairly there’s a lot of good to say. I’m going to come back to him. But it would not be hard to get a lot of people together and play this record and give them an opportunity to review it. It would be kind of a fun stunt, wouldn’t it?

Maybe I’ll do that instead of this interview.

[Laughs] It would be my comeuppance.

You don’t seem too worried, though.

I teach arts journalism at Columbia. I have students for a year, and we spend the third week making art. I take them to a printmaking studio in Brooklyn and they spend a week making prints to challenge all the conceptions about art making, and before they write a word of criticism, I want them to try to do art themselves, to get across the idea that before you wag your finger at somebody else, you think it’s so easy, you try it.

Was it hard to write these songs and perhaps maintain a higher level of mysticism than criticism might require?

I always started with an idea, but then I had to get myself to shake it and to think impressionistically, and to think in terms of allusion and imagery, to think indirectly and to embrace irresolution. In my criticism, I want everything to tie together with a bow in the end. You know, this is what it all means. With the record, I wanted to leave everything a little open-ended.

I’m curious about the mechanical aspects of songwriting. Did you write the lyrics first?

In all but the Jill [Sobule] songs. The songs for Renee and Fred, I wrote the lyrics with a dummy melody that I never gave them. The words have to be hung on something musical, or else they won’t scan, they won’t roll off the tongue, they won’t work musically. There was a lot of back and forth, especially with Renee. We spent months on those songs. Not so with Fred. He writes almost everything with a kitchen timer. His whole body of work, which is a body of masterpieces, he has written, mostly, by setting a kitchen timer on the piano and setting it for 45 minutes. For him it forces him to make decisions.

You seem pretty close with Fred Hersch. How do you know him?

We came up together. We’re two guys almost exactly the same age whose careers have sort of run parallel to each other. I’m writing for trade magazines and he’s writing jingles. I wrote for a woman’s magazine under a pseudonym. A lot of writers put together a crazy quilt of a career to make a living. You do some things you really care about and some stuff for a buck, but you try to maintain your integrity. So I wrote things under a female pseudonym for a woman’s magazine. I wrote … Oh man, this is going to be in print. [Laughs] Oh man, oh man. I wrote for a magazine called Woman’s World. It’s like a supermarket thing. It’s not the National Enquirer, but it’s not Redbook; it’s somewhere in between.

What did you write about?

I wrote a series called “How I Met Mr. Right,” written from a female’s point of view. And I did interviews with women about how they met their dreamboat, and then I transcribed them. And the stuff was accurate, and they were kind of heartwarming true-to-life stories. I got paid, and I raised two kids in New York City that way. And Fred, at exactly the same time, was the composer of the Woman’s World jingle. So he’s doing the jingle, and I’m doing the crap inside.

This interview has been condensed and edited.