Bob Dylan, dressed for the Grammys in a pewter troubadour's coat and a dandy western tie, arrived backstage to greet the assembled press after winning the album of the year award for 1997, but before the first question he turned to his handlers and asked, "Is Bob out there?"
Another night, a few years later, Bono peered out on sold-out Staples Center and told the story of U2's first visit to America and how a critic had thrilled the scruffy young band by declaring them a major new force in music. "This next song," the still-grateful singer told the crowd, "is for the mighty Bob Hilburn."
There were plenty of other nights over his 35-year tenure as Los Angeles Times pop music critic when Robert Hilburn became much more than a witness to the scene that he covered for the paper that lands on the doorstep of the music industry. Ken Kesey once said the problem with journalism was that it made a writer more of seismograph than a lightning rod, but he hadn't considered Hilburn work's as a sharp voice of demanding appraisal and something akin to a newsprint conscience for a community that measures merit in spun gold and platinum.
Born in Louisiana in 1939, he had the South in his ears when he came west to L.A. as a teen. Music mattered to him because of Elvis Presley's raw rebel energy and then later because of Dylan's startling poetry, and in 1966 he started a life's pursuit of trying to make sense of it all in The Times. His early championing led to breakthroughs for artists such as Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Gram Parsons, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, U2, N.W.A, Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, Eminem, Alicia Keys and the White Stripes.
Hilburn was notorious for his persistent advocacy for some artists -- the joke in the newsroom was that he loved to celebrate the four "Bs," which stood for Bruce, Bob Dylan, Bono and Bruce again -- but it was his negative reviews that stuck in the memory of his subjects. When Toto won a half-dozen Grammys, the band sarcastically thanked Hilburn on the air; viewers around the country may have scratched their heads, but readers of The Times knew that Hilburn had been dogging the high-gloss studio act for months. Billy Joel, bruised by years of relentless pans, once mailed an autographed photo to the newsroom just for Hilburn. In the picture, the Bronx native offered a one-finger salute.
Make artists angry and you even end up in the lyrics. The Go-Go's used to perform "Robert Hilburn" (Sample lyric: "New wave music makes good copy / Tell us, Bob, could punk be art?"), and Danny Elfman was reportedly writing about him in the sneering tune "The Imposter." One line: "You don't believe what you write / You're an imposter."
With respect to Elfman, that line is way off -- you can argue his taste but not his faith in music.
"The critics when I was coming up, sometimes they wrote things that made you tilt toward things," Springsteen said backstage recently. "The really good ones would do that, and Robert was one of those writers. You don't always like it, you don't always agree, but he always had a take."
Dr. Dre was in the studio several years ago and Hilburn's name was mentioned. The hip-hop artist recalled that in his early N.W.A days he was perplexed to see a middle-aged white guy in the crowd. "The next day the Calendar said we were the future. Robert Hilburn, that's who it was. You tell old man Hilburn I said he's all right."