The Origins of John McFerrin’s Reviews of Music
by John McFerrin
As of July 2019, “John McFerrin’s Reviews of Music” (otherwise known as “John McFerrin’s Rock and Prog Reviews”) has existed in some form for 20 years (initial writing began in late July, and the site first went public, with a whopping 4 artist pages, in October, 2019). The site has grown slowly but steadily from humble beginnings into something I am genuinely proud of, and it has served as a gateway for me to many personal connections I would otherwise not have (not least of which are the other members of Discord & Rhyme). In commemoration of this anniversary, I wish to tell the story (a story that I have most definitely not told in public previously) of why I began this site in the first place, and why I continued with it despite every opportunity to discard it.
As I have mentioned in different episodes, I got into rock music relatively late, not caring much about it until 1995, when at the age of 15 (in my sophomore year of high school) I heard “Stairway to Heaven” for the first time and found it much more interesting than I expected. By the time I finished high school, my collection was still fairly small, but certain pillars of my taste had already established themselves, such as a love for The Moody Blues and Pink Floyd, a complete ambivalence towards Queen, and a slowly burgeoning interest in Jethro Tull. During the summer of 1998 (after my high school graduation) and my freshman year of college, my collection continued to expand further, as I became fascinated with Yes, The Who, The Beatles (whom I previously thought I disliked), and many others.
During this time I also became aware of a growing community of online music fanatics, centered around Mark Prindle’s site (and in particular his amazing comments section), but also featuring what seemed like new sites popping up every week, whether from George Starostin or from a collective known as Music Junkies Anonymous or from a mysterious figure named CosmicBen with a strange fascination with eye-melting green. In this community I found an intriguing mix of people with large collections and well-established tastes, on the one hand, and young relative newbies like me, on the other hand, intrigued by a vast array of opinions on what seemed like an endless horizon of potential directions for one’s taste to grow.
Had everything gone according to plan, though, this steady march I had begun through the countryside of rock music would have come to a lengthy pause in the summer of 1999. As a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I had every intention of following the typical pattern of young men in the church by serving a 2-year mission, in which I would put my life (primarily education, but also frivolities such as learning more about music) on hold in favor of a higher calling. Far from dreading this, I looked forward to the chance to lose myself in service to others for an extended period of time, and saw this as a chance to clear my head about many things.
As John Lennon once wrote, however, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” In early 1999, I submitted relevant paperwork to the church, including medical records, as part of the standard application process, and began the process of waiting for the official mission call. After some time, it became clear that the process was taking longer than expected, but I didn’t think much of it until a response finally arrived. The doctors working on behalf of the church had looked over my file and had concluded that my medical history meant that under no circumstances could I serve a mission; in particular, my lifelong bouts of headaches, especially migraine headaches, would interfere with my ability to serve. Well, I was determined to prove them wrong; my family and other local leaders made arrangements whereby I would serve a 2-month trial mission a couple of hours from home, adhering to the schedule and routine of a full-time missionary. I set out in early June with every intent to prove the church doctors wrong, and instead I came home in early July, having discovered that they knew exactly what they were doing.
This was one of the lowest points of my life; I had seen my original plan for the next two years (a plan for which I had spent years preparing) completely disintegrate, and I also now had to shift myself back into the mode of getting ready to go back to school. As I waited for the rest of the summer to finish and for the fall semester to begin, I needed to find something to focus on to keep myself sane, and that something came from turning back to various online music review sites and realizing that, while I agreed with some opinions people had, I also disagreed with others strongly. On the one hand, Mark Prindle was right about To Our Children’s Children’s Children by The Moody Blues; on the other hand, he was dead wrong about Quadrophenia by The Who. On the one hand, George Starostin was absolutely right about loving The Beatles and rating Animals by Pink Floyd so highly; on the other hand, how dare he give Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes such a low grade? To this point, I had largely found an outlet in submitting reader comments, but a thought occurred to me: what made the people who ran these sites so special, other than having the will and discipline to write out their thoughts and make them public? And why couldn’t I do the same?
And so, I decided I would give it a try. I tried to write every day (an astonishing thought given my current pace): I wrote a review of the first Yes album, and then a review of Time and a Word, and one by one I made my way through the Yes catalogue. In August I shifted my attention to The Who; shortly after I got back to school, I began work on Pink Floyd, and after I finished Pink Floyd I turned my attention to Led Zeppelin. At this point, I felt brave enough to go public with my site, sending information on it to George Starostin, who was kind enough to post a link to my site from his despite the fact that an embarrassingly large portion of my writings consisted of plagiarism of George and of Mark Prindle that would have gotten me thrown out of university had I done something analogous in that context. From there my site continued to expand, with one new album coming every three or four days, and slowly but surely 4 pages grew into 10, which then grew into 20 by the time I had finished college, and things went from there.
It is not much of an exaggeration to say that working on my site in that first year, however low the exposure might have been, saved my life, or at least my sanity. After a very successful freshman year, my sophomore year, coming as it did in the wake of such unexpected circumstances, was a relative catastrophe academically, perhaps not enough to put me in any danger of failing out of school, but certainly enough to disqualify me from any chance at summer internships (this issue would compound on itself in subsequent years). I also experienced a number of physical ailments that year, not least of which was a shoulder dislocation that marked an abrupt end to my career as a martial artist (this shoulder would dislocate twice more in college, once from throwing a rubber ball and once from throwing a snowball), and more generally I began to experience physical effects of depression that have never really gone away, to the present day. Having something that I could focus upon and that I could curate, watching it grow, provided a life raft for me, and even if my life eventually reached a point where I could have plausibly continued without the site, my connections to it are so deep that casually tossing it aside seems ludicrous. Even as the hey-day of Web 1.0 music review sites has long passed, and a project such as Discord & Rhyme makes much more sense in 2019, I take satisfaction in knowing that a small number of people have stuck with me as the site has grown from a deeply personal outlet into something more.