Thursday, March 10, 2011

Nevin Martell: The Adventures of the Sidewinder, the Man on the Moon, and the Boy with the Yellow Cassette

Today's post is by workshop leader Nevin Martell. He's leading the incredible new Rock Journalism 101 workshop at The Writer's Center. It begins on March 29. This is the story of how he got into writing rock journalism.

Even with its melancholic accordion and ominous strings, there is still defiance laced through “Drive,” the restrained opening track to R.E.M.’s 1992 masterful album, Automatic for the People. This quiet rebellion comes courtesy of lead singer Michael Stipe, who half-intones and half-sings, “Hey kids, rock and roll/Nobody tells you where to go, baby.” For an 18-year-old high school senior who was trying to figure out his next step, it was an anthem.

I wouldn’t let my mother play anything but Automatic for the People on the three and a half hour drive to Poughkeepsie, New York where I was going for a prospective tour of Vassar College. One side would finish, I’d flip the see-thru yellow cassette tape over and repeat. Again and again and again. By the time we reached the beautiful tree-studded campus, I was completely and utterly in love with the record’s twelve songs.

When I sat down for my interview with the admissions counselor, getting into college was the last thing on my mind. All I could think about was those dozen tunes. So, when the interviewer asked about my trip down from upstate, I couldn’t help but mention that I had listened to R.E.M.’s new album eight and a half times. To my surprise, this thirtysomething stranger was a huge fan of the band. She had every R.E.M. record, including the latest. This made her and, by association, Vassar, the coolest thing ever.

For the next hour, we were a miniature R.E.M. admiration society. We dissected lyrics (Interviewer: “Did you know that they called it ‘Star Me Kitten,’ because they couldn’t write ‘Fuck Me Kitten’ on the packaging?” Me: “I didn’t even know you could say that in a college interview!”), tried to determine our favorite songs (she was leaning towards “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” or “Man on the Moon” and I was all about “Drive”) and talked about seeing the band in concert (she had seen them several times, while I was still uninitiated).

Near the end of our conversation, I realized that we hadn’t talked about Vassar at all. To interject my higher learning aspirations into the proceedings, I brought up that I wanted to pursue an English degree, which was inspired by my AP classes on the subject and a stint writing record reviews for my high school paper. “You’ll love the Misc – that’s our student-run newspaper,” the admissions counselor told me. “Make sure you check it out.” I managed to finish our interaction on a professional note – a handshake and a thank you – while internally wondering whether I had blown the whole thing by spending more time talking about alt-rock than academia.

Based on that conversation, I ended up applying only to Vassar; I didn’t want to go anywhere else. A few months later, I was accepted by early decision (take that, all you suckers who wrote 10-15 different admissions essays) and I arrived back in the Hudson Valley in the fall of 1993. As my interviewer recommended, I checked out the Misc (better known as the Miscellany News) and I started writing for them my freshman year. I held the arts and entertainment editorial position for three years, which honed my music journalism chops. Ultimately, that experience helped me land freelance music writing gigs and a book deal about the Dave Matthews Band when I graduated. It’s funny how things turn out, but I owe my entire career to the man on the moon, a sidewinder and a yellow cassette.

Nevin Martell is a Contributing Editor at Filter magazine and has written music criticism for MTV, Paste, Giant, High Times, Washington City Paper, and His books include Dave Matthews Band: Music for the People, Beck: The Art of Mutation, Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip, and Standing Small: A Celebration of 30 Years of the LEGO Minifigure. You can find him online at and on Twitter @looking4calvin.

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