A Rolling Stone Rests
After 20 years at the apex of music journalism,
Mark Kemp is exploring some homespun vibes
By David Menconi
Photography by Forrest Croce
Bowie turned 50 over dinner with rock journalist Mark Kemp ’83 at a Manhattan bistro. During a VH1 interview, Eric Clapton let Kemp play a few licks on “Brownie,” the guitar Clapton played on “Layla.” And Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton took time out from a Spice Girls photo shoot for Rolling Stone
magazine to plant a kiss on his lips, an experience Kemp describes as “awesome!”
Those were heady moments for the boy from Asheboro who grew up loving music and writing while longing for a career as a rock journalist. He achieved that goal during a career that took him all over the world before bringing him back home to North Carolina in 2002 to reconnect with his roots—familial as well as musical. Along the way, Kemp also published a critically acclaimed book and even earned a Grammy nomination for his liner notes to a 1997 box-set retrospective of 1960s protest singer Phil Ochs (left
“I remember sitting in the pharmacy my mom worked at reading music magazines and dreaming about being either a writer or a musician,” Kemp says. “I wasn’t a good enough musician to make it, so writing is the direction I went. I wanted to do this from the time I was 12, and it almost feels weird that I grew up to do it. I mean, who wouldn’t want to? But I did. It’s been a lot of luck, and also a lot of moxie—putting myself where I needed to be.”
Kemp came to ECU in 1978 to study English and philosophy, although he admits he put at least as much effort into extracurricular activities. He sang with a punk/new wave band called The Trend, which did a handful of politically themed originals plus a lot of covers. One such cover was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” sped up and rendered as “Dead Bird.”
Graduating after five years, Kemp went to work as a police reporter for the Times-News
daily paper in Burlington. During three years there Kemp earned his journalistic bonafides, learned plenty about the seamier side of human nature and wrote a music column on the side.
“I hated to get up every morning, but I got to like it,” Kemp says about his first job. “It was good to sit and listen to the magistrates talk about what they saw on a daily basis, because it was ugly. It doesn’t hurt anybody to start out as a police reporter. You learn a lot about humanity and real life, which insinuates itself into your writing. When I was an editor later, I could always tell the kids who’d done newspaper journalism from the ones who hadn’t based on their writing.”
Polished writing is one reason for the commercial and critical success of Kemp’s 2004 book, "Dixie Lullaby," the product of two years traveling the South, often accompanied by his dad, on a journey of discovery about the racial and cultural links between the South and its native-born music. Along the way, father and son rediscovered each other.
Hitting the right note
paid the rent then and it does now for Kemp, who’s become well known around Charlotte since he left New York, wrote the book and arrived in 2002 to kick back a bit as entertainment editor of the Charlotte Observer
and later as editor of Creative Loafing
, Charlotte’s alternative weekly. The past three years he’s worked out of his home off The Plaza as a freelance writer for Rolling Stone
and other magazines and as a media consultant who gives workshops at colleges and media companies, as he has done for Wake Forest University.
Kemp, who was recognized as an Outstanding Alumnus in 1998, still has the same passion for music that caused him, at 27, to strike out for New York under a summer internship program. That led in 1987 to a job at Discover
magazine writing science articles. While that job wasn’t exactly what Kemp was after, it did make it possible for him to start freelancing music stories.
His flair for music writing landed him the job as editor of Los Angeles-based Option
magazine in 1991. There, Kemp explored the punk rock and hip-hop movements as well as the rise of bands like R.E.M., Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Public Enemy. After editing Option for five years, he was hired by Rolling Stone
in February 1996. As the magazine’s music editor, Kemp produced first-time cover stories on Sean “Puffy” Combs, Marilyn Manson and Beck, as well as a breaking-news cover story on the murder of Tupac Shakur.
“What I liked about Mark was that, even as he was covering all this out-there stuff, he was also able to handle more mainstream things,” says Anthony DeCurtis, a former colleague at Rolling Stone
. “He had a full picture of what the music scene was like and could write about it in interesting ways. There’s a lot of feeling in his writing, which attracted me to his work in addition to his intelligence.”
Working at Rolling Stone
was a great experience, although dealing with the whims of mercurial publisher Jann Wenner could be maddening. “Working for Jann was crazy, especially when he’d come swooping in at the last minute and demand massive changes,” Kemp says. “But I enjoyed it. We were still doing a lot of longer stories in the mid-’90s, and I was there for some cool stuff. Like the 25-year anniversary of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Hunter S. Thompson came in to do his song and dance, and Johnny Depp was following him around mimicking everything. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘I guess I’m here.’”
After nearly two years at Rolling Stone
, Kemp accepted a job as a vice president of MTV Networks, working on news and documentaries—everything from Total Request Live on MTV to Pop-Up Video on VH1. He was living the high life at the center of the music world. But Kemp found television to be disillusioning. As an executive, he felt removed from the actual workflow. And it didn’t help that he was dealing with substance-abuse problems and the end of his marriage to music critic Lorraine Ali, who’s now a reporter for Newsweek
. A decade later, Kemp remains single.
Returning to his roots
personal problems led to some stock-taking, especially after Kemp wrote a 1998 New York Times
piece about the new wave of emerging Southern rock bands that connected the dots between Drive-By Truckers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. A kernel of an idea began to take root about broader issues of race and history viewed through the prism of the Southern rock music he grew up on.
Inking a book contract with Simon & Schuster, he left MTV Networks in August 2000 to travel the South and rediscover its music. After two years on the road, he settled in Charlotte and waited for "Dixie Lullaby" to come out.
Subtitled "A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South," the book puts Southern rock then and now into a broader cultural context encompassing everything from school desegregation to Bill Clinton’s election as president. But it’s also deeply personal, which Kemp says happened by accident. A paperback version came out in 2006.
“I didn’t set out to write a memoir,” Kemp says. “I’d never written in first-person before. The first-person proposal I wrote was just giving context as to why I should write this. Then when I was showing it to my editors, chapter by chapter, they kept saying, ‘It’s most interesting when you’re talking about yourself.’ So that proposal became the preface. The book is a musical history, a cultural history and a memoir about a guy and his father.”
Kemp thought he would return to New York after the book came out, but he stayed in Charlotte, close to family and friends. Thanks to Facebook, he’s in regular touch with more old friends from high school and college than ever before.
About to turn 50, he spends a typical day writing in the morning, followed by a mid-day 12-step meeting and then a workout.
Kemp is thinking about writing another book. One promising subject is the influx of Latino immigrants to the U.S., and the music they’ve brought with them. An essay he wrote about that appeared in the 2008 collection Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas. Whatever happens, Kemp says he probably will stay in North Carolina.
“Thomas Wolfe once said you can’t go home again and that’s not true,” Kemp says. “You can—and you can go home and stay. I’ve been back here eight years, and I have no thought of moving back."
An excerpt from the book
Dad had come along with me on my journey through the South to keep me company as I traveled from North Carolina to Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky to talk with the musicians who sparked the southern rock movement and the everyday fans who spurred its rise. When I was a teenager, Dad didn’t understand my passion for rock & roll. He was a moderate Republican and a sports enthusiast who desperately wanted me to share with him his love of football and basketball. He once told me in a rage that if I kept listening to the music of cross-dressing rock stars like David Bowie and Alice Cooper, I’d probably wind up homosexual.
Dad had spent my childhood and his young adulthood working through the corporate maze of General Electric, trying to provide a better life for our family than the one he had as a kid raised by a divorced mother. As he climbed the ladder from a punch- clock tradesman to a management position, he found himself with less time for family outings. On his days off, he played golf with his friends, and at nights he and my mother would attend parties and community functions.
By 1996, when I became music editor of Rolling Stone, Dad had retired from work and was beginning to show an interest in my career. Two years later, when my college honored me as an outstanding alumnus, he was right there in the front row, beaming as I delivered my acceptance speech. Later, Dad told me he’d come to appreciate why I spent my teenage years holed up in my bedroom with records and magazines. He finally saw that I was learning from music what I couldn’t learn from him.
On that breezy spring day in 2002, we were learning from each other.