How I Became the Honest Broker

Background Note: I rarely feel the need to add words of introduction to my essays, but this one has deep personal significance for me—far more than anything I’ve published lately—so I feel some words of explanation might be appropriate.

First, I describe here a time in my life that I’ve never discussed publicly before, either in my writings or interviews. So this account is meaningful to me, if only from a confessional or autobiographical perspective—and I hope my story may give some comfort to others who have been forced to live similarly divided or conflicted lives. Second, I believe I describe more fully here than anywhere else in my entire body of work, the core values and personal aspirations I’ve tried to pursue in my vocation. Finally, I’d like to think that I’ve outlined an approach here that can be applied usefully in other disciplines beyond music criticism, perhaps as a kind of vocational philosophy, or even, you might say, a way of life.

That last claim might seem too ambitious for such a succinct personal memoir, but I’ve now thought this matter over for some time, and feel that a broader application of my own story could be its most important aspect.

With that brief intro, I now share. . .


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How I Became the Honest Broker

I rarely talk about my workaday life before I settled into music and writing. Those days are far too strange and confusing to convey without writing a whole book about them. And I’ll never write that book because a lot of it I’d rather forget.

Other people in the creative economy have day gigs, but they are usually simple to describe—waiting on tables, tutoring school kids, driving a taxi, would you like fries with that, mister? But my work wasn’t anything like that. I took on projects that sent me into unfamiliar terrain all over the world, and thrust me into odd and unpredictable situations. The deliverables were always high stakes, the work often secret, surrounded by confidentiality agreements and cautionary warnings, and the agenda rarely going according to plan.

I’ll admit it: I was like a person with a split personality in my twenties. I was obsessed with music, working to advance my piano skills, and digging deeply into the research that would eventually result in so many later books and articles. But I also had to pay the bills, and I possessed a few highly marketable skills. I had an ability to analyze complex social, political and economic situations, a way of navigating through turbulent waters, a knack for making the right move at the right time. These skills caught the notice of powerful people, and they would put me to work to solve their problems.

And, oh man, did they have problems. They would thrust a plane ticket in my hand, and send me packing—off into situations that might involve everything and anything.

The good news: My bosses paid well. What they wanted was never simple or straight-forward. But if I could pull it off, I got rewarded with enough money to cover my costs during long stretches solely devoted to my music and writing.

I have little desire to dwell on the details. Many of them are still confidential, and telling too much could get me into trouble. Much of it is a blur any way—Bangkok, Medellín, Cannes, Shanghai, Prague, Copacabana, Macau, Paris, Tasmania, Jakarta, Tijuana, Frankfurt, Krakow, Tokyo and all other places I went on my various missions.  So many cities, so many crazy days and long nights.

But I need to remember it, if only because I have to tell you about the Honest Broker.

This particular project brought me to China. I was trying to set up an operation in a remote province, far outside my comfort zone, and couldn’t seem to figure out how to maneuver among the various interests and stakeholders. My patron was one of the wealthiest men in Hong Kong, and by using his contacts, I gained access to people who normally operate behind layers of intermediaries and gatekeepers. But even these contacts led me on an endless runaround. My sources gave me  conflicting advice and confusing directions. Everything felt wrong and nothing seemed quite on the level.

I knew I needed help, but had run out of options. Then I met the drunk Australian.

He wasn’t a contact on my list, and I can’t even remember his name. This was a chance encounter in a hotel bar late at night. But this hard-drinking Australian was talkative and had interesting things to say. He had spent most of his life bouncing around the capitals of Asia, and was a high-level operator in his own spheres. He bragged about his insider’s knowledge, and claimed—with some accuracy, as I came to discover—that he knew how to maneuver in China better than the clueless Westerners who were now appearing on the scene. He had traced the secret paths to power and knew all the dangerous mistakes amateurs always make.

He reeled off a list of them. “You go into a province or city and flash around some money, then expect the local officials will help you? Forget it. They’ll rob you blind, and even make you bribe them for the privilege. Same goes for the party leaders. From each according to his ability, and all that, my friend. And forget about lawyers—the legal protections here are like this”—he held up his empty glass, then flipped it over as if to emphasize the nothingness of what he was offering to the gods of Marx and Mao. “As for the bankers, you might as well call them wankers.”

The empty glass was also a sign that I needed to order another round of the local brew, and I quickly complied. My new friend fell into a meditative silence until further libations arrived. Finally, after another sip on the stomach-destroying glass of baijiu that passed for spirits at our watering hole, I asked the obvious question.

“So what do I do? Who can I trust?”

“That’s easy, mate. You need to find the Honest Broker.”

This sounded appealing enough, but I had zero idea what my new acquaintance was talking about. He might just as well have told me to go to Oz and consult with the Wizard.  

“Who, exactly, is this Honest Broker?”

“There’s at least one in every city. But don’t expect their business cards to say ‘Honest Broker’—that’s just what I call them. But that’s exactly what they are. Sometimes they don’t even have an official position. But they are the key to everything.”

He proceeded to explain how Honest Brokers play a hidden but vital role in communities without a history of legal protections and stable institutions. Their influence and power is built solely on a reputation for straight talk and trustworthy dealings. “They are true brokers, intermediaries between others. They aren’t going to participate in your deal, no matter what it is. They are go-betweens, really. But do not underestimate the power of this kind of brokerage. Whatever you need—a loan, a building permit, political influence, a place to land a private jet, whatever—they will introduce you to the right people and steer you away from the sharks.

“And they do this for a very simple reason: their prestige is enhanced by making these connections. In many cases, they don’t even want to be paid. Or let me put that differently—you repay them by becoming a trusted contact for them in future dealings. The Honest Broker may help you for free right now, but don’t be surprised to get asked for assistance on something completely different months or even years later. You Yanks have a hard time grasping it, and are always looking for shortcuts. But the Honest Broker plays the long-term game, mate.

“Find your Honest Broker, and your problems will be solved.”

This proved to be valuable advice, worth far more than the cost of drinks. Over the next few weeks, I changed my approach completely. I made inquiries, compared notes, and finally found my Honest Broker—who did solve my problems, just as promised. My mission accomplished, I returned back home to California and tried to forget all about it.

I put my passport out of sight. My world shrank back to manageable dimensions, and my days were spent at the two keyboards, the piano and the word processor. I was getting back into my music groove again.

A long time went by before I realized the real importance of what I had learned in China, and how it applied to the other half of my split and fractured life. I was putting energy into a new sphere now, music criticism, and trying to create a rule book for how to make it sizzle.

Yet criticism seemed such a degraded form of writing at that juncture. I had already seen the collapse in literary criticism—in fact, I had lived through it as a student at Stanford and Oxford. The whole enterprise had turned into a circus sideshow over the course of just a few years. Critics now aspired to quasi-celebrity status, and they exploited their roles as arbiters of taste to engage in the worst sort of strutting and preening. The more outlandishly they sold out their craft, opting instead for self-aggrandizement, the larger the rewards they received. This blight took root first in France but quickly spread elsewhere.  And now the taint seemed to be seeping into other forms of criticism as well. Whether the subject at hand was a movie or a meal or a TV wrestling match, the critics were the real stars, and everything else subservient to their self-serving deconstruction of anything in their path.

Music reviews seemed to occupy the lowest rung of all, with their own distinct set of vices. I saw critics who just regurgitated record label press releases. Or took all sorts of freebies from power brokers in return for—well, just guess—without a tinge of hesitation or guilt. Or used their influence to get close to stars, churning out favorable coverage in exchange for access. Or announced the arrival of some new savior of the music every month, hyping short-lived trendsetters in a never-ending process of spin. Exaggeration and hipper-than-thou pretension were the calling cards of the field. With an ample supply of those, and a backstage pass, nothing could stop you.

I admit, with some shame, that all this appealed to me in my twenties. The idea that I could adopt a pose as a critic, and launch myself into some higher sphere of coolness—and maybe even hang out with superstars as part of the deal. . . . Well, that was why you picked this vocation in the first place. Wasn’t it? There were compromises, sure, but didn’t they exist in every field? I soothed my conscience by recalling what Hyman Roth tells Michael Corleone in The Godfather II: “Michael, this is the business we’ve chosen.” You get to swagger like a wiseguy, and grab whatever you can get your hands on, just so long as you’re willing to dispose of a few bodies along the way.

I could play this game, was even good at it. I got published and started receiving some recognition for my talents. But I was troubled nonetheless. This didn’t feel right. It didn’t add up. Was this really the right way to do it?

And that’s when I remembered the Honest Broker.

The Honest Broker now reappeared in my psyche as an inner voice, an avenging angel whispering in my ear. Remember me? The Honest Broker puts forthright expression and straight dealing above everything else. The Honest Broker doesn’t look for direct benefit in any endeavor. The Honest Broker is just an intermediary, not a beneficiary. 

But all that seems foolish—because what do you get out of it?

Day by day, the whispering got louder, turned into a constant drone. Do not underestimate the power of this kind of brokerage…the Honest Broker plays the long-term game, mate. Over time, that scrupulous fidelity and reputation for trustworthy advice beats out all other strategies. The Honest Broker is irreplaceable, and all the more so when other guides have become unreliable.

Again and again, I asked myself the same question: Could the Honest Broker be a role model for me as a critic? Even more to the point, did the Honest Broker represent an entirely different model for criticism? Precisely the correcting course we need at this juncture in cultural history?

And here I must make another shameful admission. My initial reaction to this line of thinking was to resist it, and even ridicule it—and for the simple reason that it didn’t gratify my ego. The critic as celebrity was much more appealing on every level. Even the title of “broker” was a huge letdown, especially when I considered the other options. Stanley Crouch had just released a book of critical essays entitled Notes of a Hanging Judge—now that sounded cool. The Hanging Judge? How could I get a nickname like that? I tried saying out loud: Notes of an Honest Broker.

Hell’s bells, it just didn’t have the same ring.

Even so, I saw my approach to writing change over the next few months. Without even consciously admitting it to myself, I was taking on the persona of the Honest Broker. I began measuring my own methodologies against ideal standards of fairness, and nagging myself when I strayed from them. I started paring away at exaggerations and posturing in my prose, and worked to find other ways of imparting color and vitality to my sentences. Above all, I started worrying about my reader—because, after all, wasn’t the reader the real person I was supposed to serve? Wasn’t the reader the beneficiary of my brokerage services?

This too was alarming. Pleasing musicians or editors brought more tangible rewards. What did I get out of serving some lousy, anonymous reader? The ingrate wouldn’t even recognize my noble sacrifice.

Then I reached the most abject level in this whole process of self-abasement. I started worrying about whether the reader would actually enjoy the music I was recommending.

This was a whole new consideration, one that had never dawned on me before. And I could tell by consulting various cutting edge critics, that this issue hadn’t got on their radar screens either. They didn’t give a rat’s ass for the reader’s musical pleasure. Or, if they did, they made sure to hide it at every pass. I started reading  music reviews just looking for the words: enjoyment, pleasure, delight. They had gone missing in action. Why didn’t anyone talk about them? Shouldn’t enjoyment be a make-or-break part of the deal? Yes, a critic expands the readers’ horizons, informs and educates, but also guide them to pleasure. After all, wasn’t that why I listened to music? Wasn’t that what brought me to my vocation in the first place?

Lost in this maze, I started recognizing all the other priorities that people had who wrote about music. And the more I mulled over the ecosystem, the more polluted it seemed. I saw smart people who wrote entire books about music with the aim of securing tenure from their elder colleagues in a college music department. I saw others twisting themselves into all sorts of contortions in order to win a grant or please an editor or curry favor with some institutional power broker. I even read reviewers who wrote with the apparent goal of ingratiating themselves with other reviewers. Talk about the blind leading the blind!

Above all, I noticed a whole syndrome that I came to call the Clement Greenberg problem—named after the art critic who achieved enormous success (and very large paydays) by heralding the work of Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionists. Greenberg had made it clear that the single most lucrative move for a modern-day critic was to announce the newest new thing, the coming revolution that would sweep everything else aside. And he had proven so influential that, by the time I came of age as a critic, a revolution in music was getting announced every few weeks. I couldn’t pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading about some futuristic, world-beating sound that had altered all the rules—and then a few weeks later it would be forgotten, replaced by something just as ephemeral. The whole thing was a joke to anyone who looked at it from the outside, but within the feverish world of music journalism, no one could figure out any better way to operate.

And there I was, the poor Honest Broker, with my ridiculous self-chosen nickname, and so few tools at my disposal. I had no revolution to peddle, not even a medium-sized riot or back alley scuffle.

I knew if I was going to make this work, I had to equip myself better. This would be a long, tough journey. I had to educate myself more deeply, learn as much as I could about music, especially the riches and beauties that others might miss. My new concern with musical pleasure might even turn into an advantage here, opening my ears to sounds the celebrity critics would scorn. I also had to learn how to write better, with more incision and imaginative grasp of the subject at hand. Above all, I had to think about the reader, with far more clarity than I had done before.

Perhaps the reader would even think of me some day.

Could I wear the title of Honest Broker with pride? Well, that might be too much to ask. I am just a broker, merely an intermediary. Sometimes I don’t even get paid for my services.  

But maybe, just maybe, this can work. That’s what I kept telling myself, over and over: It’s the long-term game, mate. It’s the long-term game.