Gary Graff: The Opining Sofer of Song Belts One Out with RT

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Gary Graff has been coined the “Rabbi of Rock,” a music journalist with an uncanny ear for great music. Former critic for the Detroit Free Press, Graff is the man who refused to be heeled by the man, or cross the picket line during the newspaper’s 1995 strike; he was summarily dismissed.

Since then, Graff has juggled a variety of freelance gigs, including writing for the New York Times features syndicate, Reuters wire service, Billboard and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. He writes regular columns for the Oakland Press and recently co-wrote two books: Travelin’ Man: On the Road and Behind the Scenes with Bob Seger and Neil Young: Long May You Run.

RT: What led you to a career in music journalism?

GG: Two things: One was ninth-grade biology, when I figured out I was not going to become the nice Jewish doctor my mother thought I was going to be; also, at a certain point I realized I was not going to be able to play third base for the Pittsburgh (where I grew up) Pirates.

It was in fourth grade that I started writing for what was then the school newspaper — and it really planted that seed in me. When I got into high school, there were journalism classes and a more substantial newspaper to do things for.

The music component came from a brother who was more than 11 years older than I — the hippie. So, growing up as a kid I was hearing all the great music of the ’60s. It instilled a real love of music in me; and both [aspects] coexisted — regardless of the kind of journalism I was doing over the years.

I would always write about music on the side; it would always be part of what I did. When I had the chance to do it full time, the timing was right. I was 21 years old, and there was an opportunity in Detroit.

RT: When did you move to Michigan?

GG: I came to Detroit in 1982, right after I graduated from the University of Missouri.

RT: Why didn’t you cross the picket line when you were at the Detroit Free Press?

GG: “It was the right thing to do, and I still believe that.”
RT: How has the quality of music changed over the years?

GG: It hasn’t; there’s still good music and bad music. I don’t have trouble finding it. It’s very hip to say, ‘Music sucks; I don’t like music anymore,’ whether you are a classic rock fan — who figures that all music stopped being good in the mid-to-late ’70s — or a young hipster who figures if it’s not obscure punk rock then it’s no good.
Do I think that everything I like is going to wind up being tomorrow’s classic music? Of course not — but I still think it’s out there. I almost think that people, at some point, arrest their musical tastes so they don’t have to worry about keeping up anymore.

RT: Which interview has really blown you away?

GG: Quite a few of my interviews have blown me away, some by the mere fact of who they were — folks like Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger, who carry that special aura about them; Keith Richards, who I watched down a bottle of Rebel Yell and then crack a fresh Jack Daniel’s during our interview; and Dave Grohl, who’s really as genuine as he seems.

The key to a good interview is not necessarily who it’s with as much as what we talk about; it’s as cool to talk with Jeff Beck about his passion for vintage Fords, for instance, as it is about his guitar playing. So, a lot of the ones that blow me away are the artists who have other interests and passions that are part of their lives. RT

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