The Buffalo News
WHEN WRITING ROCKED BUFFALO
Date: Sunday, February 24, 1991 Section: ENTERTAINMENT Edition: FINAL Page: H1
By ELMER PLOETZ
News Staff Writer
Buffalo a hotbed of rock 'n' roll criticism?
Yes, there was a time in the 1970s when Buffalo may have led the nation in rock literacy, and part of the credit goes to Jeff Nesin.
Nesin, then a graduate student and professor at the University at Buffalo, taught the university's first courses on the effects of popular culture in America.
"At first it was regarded as a poisonous avocation that people wished I would take somewhere else, or at least be quiet about," says Nesin. "Now there are branches of cultural studies that are devoted to particular aspects of popular culture."
In his classes, Nesin, himself a music writer, encountered and encouraged Billy Altman and Joe Fernbacher, two writers who went on to help define rock criticism at Creem magazine in the '70s.
Altman's style was mainstream, focusing mainly on putting the music into a social and historical framework (in recent years he has produced the RCA Heritage series of pre-1950 blues and country releases as well as writing for Rolling Stone, Esquire and Connoisseur).
Fernbacher, on the other hand, was more likely to write stream-of-consciousness prose embracing the trashier side of things.
The result was two issues of Punk, a magazine associated with UB's Spectrum newspaper that predated the punk-new wave movement by three years. But it was attitude that counted.
Around the same time, Nesin, Fernbacher and Altman were involved in the Institute of Rock 'n' Roll Studies, which drew together such like-minded souls as disc jockey Jim Santella and a teen-age Gary Sperrazza, now the owner of buffalo's Apollo Records store.
The results were a bit like a long-term chain reaction. While Altman returned to write from New York, Fernbacher started working for Creem out of Buffalo and with Sperrazza started Shakin' Street Gazette, a publication out of Buffalo State College. Greg Shaw, publisher of the '70s journal Bomp!, labeled it "America's best local rock magazine."
Sperrazza and Fernbacher also shook loose $3,000 from the college's student activities fund for a rock writers symposium in 1974 that brought in, among others, writers Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, Shaw, Richard Meltzer and two writers on their way to becoming rock stars, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye.
Later in the '70s, Buffalo State generated such magazines as Fox Trot and Bernie Kugel's Big Star. The line halted at the end of the decade with Rockers (Andrew Elias and Bill Poczik from that magazine would eventually start New York Talk with Robert Seidenberg). Then the writers, for the most part, scattered. College radio -- not music writing -- became Buffalo's new-music medium.
And what became of Nesin?
He moved into college administration. In July, he will leave the School of Visual Arts in New York to become president of the Memphis (Tenn.) College of Art.
But he has continued writing about music and teaching his courses on popular music in American culture. In a recent interview, he said he had just found himself in class quoting Fernbacher in trying to put the American Music Awards into context:
"There's good taste and bad taste, but no taste is the best taste of all."