Friday, March 9, 2012

PURE FUSION: multiculture versus monoculture
director’s cut, Springerin, December 2000

by Simon Reynolds

It's funny when you suddenly become aware of a tic within your own writing. It's a reflex I share with a fair few other popcult commentators: using the word "purist" as an insult. I go further and frequently use the coinage "impurist", which sounds like it ought to be pejorative, as praise. Behind the tic, there's a broader reflex: the impulse to celebrate artists who draw on a wide range of influences, based on the assumption that mixing up genres is intrinsically more progressive than narrow focus on one stylistic path.

Increasingly dissatisfied with this glib assumption, I almost want to perversely defend purism as an aesthetic strategy--if only because such a lot of ostentatiously border-crossing work is actually far less impressive than it thinks it is. Think of Bill Laswell, leftfield music's most assiduous networker, continually convening one-off supergroups that unite P-Funk keyboard players with free jazz hornsmen with African guitarists with hip hop turntablists with dub producers with... well, you get the picture. The idea is similar to Jon Hassell's notion of the Fourth World (Western hi-tech modernity meets atavistic ethnic spirituality, to each other's mutual enrichment) but Laswell's panglobal superjams almost invariably end up a horrible mish-mash. Then there's those other perpetrators of lameness in the name of hybridity: the "ethnotechno" school of world music sampling electronic outfits like TransGlobal Underground, Banco De Gaia, Loop Guru (who actually had a few moments, admittedly), Juno Reactor...

Trouble is, most of the music I like is hybrid, and its hybridity is high on the list of reasons why I rate it. This raises the question of why some fusions work and others remain composites of disparate sources without any vital spark. The language for judging success or failure in this realm is entirely metaphorical. Successful hybrids invite the imagery of alchemy or metallurgy (crucibles, amalgams, melding, smelting, and so forth), or the essentially similar language of cooking (bouillabaise, gumbo, melting pots, etc). Bad hybrids, like lumpy purees or unsuccessful cakes, are subject to the ultimate put-down: "the end result is somehow less than the sum of its parts".

Good musical hybridity, like good cooking, might be where you can still detect every element's distinctive flavor, but the flavors have interpenetrated each other---a perfect balance of heterogenity and mixture (as opposed to the homogenized taste of a perfectly smooth puree). Then again, music isn't really like cooking--there's no reason why you can't have artists who make a whole dish out of the sonic equivalent of flour, or salt. (And you do--virtuosos of monochromatic concentration like Plastikman and Pole). And yet there's hardly any positive terms in pop critical discourse for fanatical focus or fixated perseverance. Fruitless displays of undistinguished versatility (a/k/a being a jack of all trades and master of none) always run better with reviewers, few of whom seem to be equipped for listening closely to the subtle modulations of what Amiri Baraka called a "changing same" (the groove that just keeps on keepin' on, yet absorbs you with its endlessly shifting inflections and accents). Look at dance magazines, and you will see reviews that approvingly list an artist's forays into genres other than the one whose section they are actually reviewed under. Stylistic inconstancy, generic treason, and dilettantism are, paradoxically, almost supreme values. And often the writer gestures at a vague enemy allegedly outraged by these border-crossing forays and illicit mixtures: the purists.

Why is "purist" such a potent insult? I think it relates to the word's etymological echoes (puritanism, and its related tropes of squeamishness, prudishness, and closemindedness) and its semantic traces from other, genuinely reprehensible bodies of thought: eugenics, racial purity, cultural hygiene. "Impurist" music, or what in an earlier age they called "fusion", allies itself with a more virtuous bunch of concepts: multiculturalism, miscegenation, cosmopolitanism. It's especially heartwarming to ally yourself with words like these right now, when European politics is muddied by upsurges of ethnic anxiety about pollution and mixture: Le Pen, Haider, and similar ultra-nationalist figures in Belgium, Rumania, and Norway; racial attacks on migrant workers, asylum seekers, immigrants. While British neo-fascist parties have declined in recent years, the UK's general population remains deeply divided over issues of multiculturalism and European unity; there was a storm of outrage when a Government-funded independent report on multiculturalism declared that the concept of "Britishness" was latently racist owing to its imperial echoes.

One of the figures involved in drafting that report was Stuart Hall, pioneer of the cultural studies movement at Birmingham University in the 1970s. Paul Gilroy, one of Hall's former associates and, like him, a Black-British theorist about postcolonialism and hybridity, made his own contribution this year to the multiculture debate with Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (also published, in the UK, as Between Camps). If the book has a crux, it's the fatal ambiguity of the word "culture" itself--which simultaneously has an organic, biological resonance (growing plants, germ cultures etc) yet also signifies the antithesis of earthy natural-ness (the civilized, the non-instinctual, the artificial, the sublimated). The first aspect of "culture" connects to notions of blood ties and its inevitable companion blood letting: tribal warfare, ethnic cleansing, Balkanisation or "Rwanda-isation", the rhetoric of roots and homelands, struggles over mother tongues and state control of language.

Aiming to de-biologize the concept of race, reveal it as a pseudo-scientific figment, Gilroy--just like a music journalist--has his set of bad terms and his set of good terms:

essentialism/primordialism/unanimism/fraternalism/ethnic absolutism



There are no pure races, cultures, or art forms, Gilroy contends; everything is always already hybrid, contaminated by the other.

Gilroy acknowledges dance music as one of the bastions of contemporary "transculture". And interestingly, club and rave culture are where the discourse of purism versus hybridity is most heated. This is partly because the culture's primary focus isn't individual artists, as it is with rock, but styles and scenes. Because this is the level on which it's most productive to talk about stuff, a huge amount of discursive energy goes into cultural taxonomy, into identifying genres and subgenres like species; into tracing the genealogy of genres, the family trees and evolutionary pathways of different sounds. Artists are typically praised for departing from their chosen genre and taking on ideas from other styles.

Genre has a phantom trace of the concept of the genetic, and almost all the language used to discuss music has connotations of miscegenation: mix-and-blend, mutation, mongrels, the imperative to avoid incestuousness (the downside of all closeknit scenes) and instead widen one's gene pool. Either that, or it's the language of horticulture: grafts, hybrids, cross-breeds, grass roots. Typically, a new genre is discovered and hailed for its distinctiveness. But if it's not careful, this scene will soon become castigated for being purist, for not embracing influences from other genres. Rare indeed is the scene that can maintain for any length of time an equilibrium between self-consistency and flux, absorbing outside influences without flaking off into subgenres or offshoot tribes (with the hype-hungry media eagerly hastening this process in order to have something to write about).

Perhaps the privileging of aesthetic mingling as supreme value echoes the broader "project" of club and rave culture, the premium it sets on social mixing. (Itself an echo of rock'n'roll's original subversiveness--cross-town traffic between different races, the phantom threat of miscegenation that aroused the white Southern establishment's fears of "negrification" and "jungle rhythms"). In dance discourse, a club that draws a mixed crowd is always good; all kinds of scenes echo the credo of pirate station Kool FM, "it doesn't matter what your class color or creed, you're welcome in the house of jungle". Scenes lose their vibe, it's generally believed, when the mix becomes unbalanced (drum'n'bass, it's said, lost it when there were too many boys on the floor, for instance, the girls driven away by techstep’s distorted noise and mechanistic stomp). The exhortation to mix up the styles, keep porous your genre boundaries, has an ethical charge to it: as if somehow an artist could singlehandedly resurrect the lost unity of rave, a unity shattered by, you guessed it, the purists, the schism-makers. Hence the unanimous praise for Basement Jaxx and Armand Van Helden, paradoxically taken as exemplars of their genre (house) yet praised for attempting to leave its borders at every opportunity.

There's a reversibility to dance culture's pro-hybridity rhetoric, for when the "purists" (who do exist, and are often reactionary) talk about protecting their genre from its debasers, their language takes on unfortunate eugenic associations. Detroit techno pioneer Derrick May described breakbeat hardcore (the music that evolved into jungle) as a "diabolical mutation" and declared "I don't even like to use the word 'techno' because it's been bastardised and prostituted in every form you can possibly imagine". His contemporary Eddie Fowlkes described European rave in terms of the "cultural rape" of Detroit, and later put together a compilation of "proper" Detroit-affiliated techno called True People. As Barbara Stafford argues in Body Criticism: Imagining the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine, "the hybrid posed a special problem for those who worried about purity of forms... and unnatural mixtures... The metaphysical and physical dangers thought to inhere in artificial grafts surfaced in threatening metaphors of infection, contamination, rape and bastardy."

Then again, the extent to which these aesthetic issues map onto real-world politics is confusing, to say the least. In the case of Detroit techno versus UK hardcore rave, the irony was that these British kids (white, black, mix-race) who were "corrupting" techno were doing so by mixing it with elements from other forms of black music that the Detroit pioneers (all African-American) disdained: hip hop's breakbeats, dub reggae's bass, dancehall's rowdy vocals. In the cultural politics of Detroit, class division transected racial allegiances: the arty middle class black kids who invented techno were Europhiles who despised hip hop as ghetto music, and feared its fans from the projects. Hardcore/jungle, as a hip hop/techno hybrid, represented the return of Detroit's repressed---which is why Detroit and Detroit-aligned artists resisted the breakbeat revolution for as long as possible.

Then again, is what I cherish about hardcore/jungle, and
find relatively lacking in most Detroit techno, really about the former's hybridity and the latter's purism? Mixing disparate elements together guarantees nothing. There's a whole realm of bland blending out there, which Gilroy acknowledges when he refers to the banal forms of rootless cosmopolitanism in which "everything becomes... blended into an impossibly even consistency." Why is this kind of hybridity so lacking in interest? Is it the scent of tourism--safe encounters with an Other that reassuringly turns out to be harmless, or even the Same? I'm thinking of the world music phenomenon, where white Westerners like Paul Simon discovered the primal innocence and raw spirit of Fifties rock'n'roll alive and kicking, clad in the exotic ethnic flesh of Soweto or Bahia. (But were strangely much less inclined to embrace the forbidding alien-ness of, say, Inuit Eskimo plainsong or Javanese gamelan). The edge-less aura of these hybrids has something to do with their top-down nature, as opposed to more lateral/reciprocal/rhizomatic interactions. The slumming, inspiration-starved, albeit often genuinely enthusiastic, respectful and well-informed rockstars (David Byrne, Peter Gabriel) who seek aesthetic rejuvenation from outside Western pop can be contrasted with the sort of hybrids that emerge spontaneously through long-term proximity of different populations. Think of London's dance culture, which goes back long before rave to when Jamaicans first imported their sound system culture of heavy bass pressure, "blues" (illegal all-night parties), and ganja. The result has been a continuum of creole music: lover's rock, Soul II Soul's "funki dread" sound (imported American soul meets reggae, but only in London), breakbeat hardcore and jungle, today's UK underground garage and 2-step. Or take Bristol, another UK city with a long established multiracial presence, but which produced its own quite differently inflected cross-breed: the Pop Group's dub-funk-jazz charged version of postpunk, trip hop. All of these hybrid sounds have an element of evolutionary random-ness about them, and reflect not just sonic recombination but social exchanges, reciprocal transfers of behavior and ideas. Compare these slowly spawned hybrids with the fusions hatched in laboratory-like conditions by the likes of Bill Laswell. The organic versus synthetic metaphor is perhaps too loaded, but there does seem to be a difference here between interbreeding/grafts and cut'n'paste/collage, a contrast possibly analogous to the difference between analog and digital. Where the first set of hybrids (jungle, 2step, etc) are productively contaminated with the mess of everyday life and street knowledge, the second set has an unmistakeable aura of sterility, the academic.

Ultimately, these are musical values, aesthetic failings, though: lack of "spark" or "vibe" or whatever other vital intangible it is that animates music. And perhaps the whole debate over purism versus impurism is based on the mistaken belief that you can map aesthetics onto politics, find a straightforward equivalence or correlation between worth in one realm and the other. Dick Hebdiges, the famed subcultural theorist (and contemporary of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy), once described the development of UK pop music as "a phantom history of British race relations". I've long concurred with this view, but now I'm not so sure. The racial narrative--above all, the white romance with black music--is just one of many threads in the tangled tapestry of pop culture, and the picture gets confused by a host of other factors and struggles: class, gender, technology. Furthermore, as pop/rock grew older, it started to develop its own internal politics, engage in purely aesthetic struggles, and go through shifts based on a self-reflexive relationship with its own accumulating history (the postmodern feedback loops crystallized in the famous phrase "pop will eat itself"). Working out what a given piece of music, or a particular trend, correlates with in terms of the outside world is hard enough, let alone a specific strand of political reality such as race relations.

Take, for example, the recent issue of Melody Maker that featured the a cover story headlined "UK Garage-- My Arse!" and the sub-headline "Alternative Rock Fights Back". Depicted on the cover is a black man with a striking resemblance to garage superstar Craig David, sitting on the toilet listening to a Walkman with his trousers around his ankles, a piece of toilet paper in his hand. The back story to this is the bursting of Britpop's bubble. The giddy mood of jingoistic triumphalism that consumed the entire UK indie-rock scene--bands, fans, journalists--for a good three year period 1995-97, had now curdled to bitter dismay, as the pop charts became dominated by American R&B and rap, plus the homegrown house/jungle/R&B hybrid known as UK garage aka 2step. Melody Maker’s cover could be seen as a petulant fit of impotent rage from a magazine whose sales had shriveled to a pathetic 30 thousand copies a week.

My initial response, as UK garage fan and a MM veteran of the days when the magazine put Public Enemy on the cover, was to squeal "racism!". The explicit equation of UK garage, a multiracial scene dominated by black musical values, with shit connects unhappily with a little-known dirty secret about the UK music press: market research by IPC, the conglomerate that owns both Melody Maker and its rival NME, discovered that the large market segment of casual readers who pick up one paper or the other depending on who's on the cover wouldn't buy issues that featured black faces on their covers. As reprehensible and sad as the "UK Garage--My Arse!" cover was (the first black man on MM's cover in living memory), though, I'm not utterly convinced that indie-rockers antipathy towards "that garage crap" is really racist. It's a mixture of discontents and repugnances: aesthetic disgust (the smooth, shiny UKG production transgresses indie rock's values of sonic shabbiness), gender bias (UKG connotes girly, pop values like singalong melodies, diva soulfulness, lyrics about sex and romance), class affiliation (garage's working class dress-to-impress fashion and fetish for expensive designer labels versus middle class students's dressed-down scruffiness), rock snobberies about the superiority of lyrics/persona over rhythm/production. Add to that the stinging feeling of being marginalised, a sense of being the underdog, and you have the ingredients for ressentiment. Racism--more on the level of ignorant, stereotyped ideas about black music cultures than hatred--acts as a glue that coheres all these different strands of antagonism together. In other words, it's exactly the same complicated tissue of reactionary and nostalgic impulses that lay behind Morrissey's attitudes to dance music.

Another way of looking at these relationships between aesthetics and politics is to find the least black-influenced music around and see if it correlates with racism, as it ought according to this logic. So take gabba, the hardcore techno subgenre---one of the most ferociously purist forms of music around, and "white"-sounding to most ears. Gabba has been persistently smeared with a Far Right association for years--because of the lack of "blackness" in its rhythmic feel, the aura it emits of a rampaging mob, and the fact that many of its fans have short cropped hair. As a fan of some of this stuff, I'll tell you straight up that there's definitely an aesthetic quality to it that verges on the fascistic, or at least the dark side of the Dionysian: an amphetamine-wired aura of blitzkrieg, sinister pageantry, sturm und drang. Does this cyber-Wagner bombast have any intrinsic politics, though? (Marcus Garvey was into regimentation, drill, uniforms, too).

Dig deeper, and you discover that while gabba has a skinhead following in some parts of Europe, it is also the soundtrack of choice for Far Left anger---for anarchists, squat-dwelling and free party organizing renegades. Even in Holland, where some of the big gabba labels felt the need to clarify things by putting "Gabbers Against Hate and Racism" slogans on their record sleeves, you discover that many of the leading DJs started out spinning hip hop. Some top gabber DJs--Holland's Darkraver, the UK's Loftgroover--are actually black.

But let's focus on one gabba god, German producer Marc Acardipane (a/k/a the Mover and about twenty other alter-egos). Probably the most accomplished producer in the genre, and perpetrator of some of the most Vikings-going-berserker sounding gabber so far, Acardipane is also a big hip hop fan. His formative techno influences are from black Detroit artists Suburban Knight and Underground Resistance, and he also made some early breakbeat-driven rave tunes and jungle tracks. So we're not dealing with a guy with a closed mind or ears. The Mover's decision to pursue such a purist, narrowly focused music path is entirely aesthetic, and entirely productive: he has created a vast, frequently astounding body of work. There are purisms in music that are reactive and reactionary. They couch themselves in terms of a return to something that's been lost---an original vibe, "funk", musicality, emotion--or as honorings/resurrections of some bygone golden age (acid jazz and Seventies fusion; deep house's yearning for the Paradise Garage and the lost eclecticism of Seventies underground disco culture). You could call this kind of purism "fundamentalist" perhaps, gesturing at its religiosity, its attitude of keeping the faith. But other purisms are forward-tilted, emergent, and in some senses self-generating. This kind of purism seems to coalesce in response to the centripetal? pull of a strange attractor, shedding off the residues of other styles and honing down to an aesthetic essence: think of how jungle emerged from the messy chaos of hardcore rave, and how jungle further refined itself into jump-up and techstep. Perhaps there is an optimal point in the arc of any purist music, after which the self-refining minimalism becomes anorexia--the style eating away at itself. (This is what happened to drum'n'bass after it perfected itself circa 1996; to gabba once it had gone beyond a certain extremity of beats-per-minute and distortion and exhausted all the possibilities within its very enclosed terrain).

The Mover's purism is the forward-leaning sort. Title-wise, his tracks often refer to a private mythology based around the apocalyptic future; an obsession with the year 2017 that maybe relates to this idea of exponential arc of intensification (sonic, techno-cultural) hurtling towards a singularity in the near future. If Acardipane were to dabble more in mixing styles or broaden his textural palette beyond the few colors of which he is master, his work would only lose its power, its fanatical focus. There is an undeniable aura of zeal in the music, which begs the question again of its real-life correlates, if any. The "fascism" in this music is the desire, enflamed by the music but also satisfied by the music, to merge with a collective vastness ("Into Sound", as one Acardipane track is titled; see also titles like “Hall” and the Cold Rush label slogan “music for huge space arenas”). This is also the desire to merge with the rave massive: mobilized but aimless, united but apolitical. In a sense, this music isn't about but simply is the desire for mission, insurgency, destination, destiny, singlemindedness, a mobilized and rampaging unanimity; rage without object, belief without creed. And it suggests that fantasies of purity relate to our ancient desires for the absolute. When you come to think about it, music is just about the healthiest, safest place to deal with such longings.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening To Five Mean Years by Greil Marcus
Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism by Chuck Eddy
director's cut, Bookforum, fall 2011

by Simon Reynolds

Rock’s accumulated past is accessible as never before thanks to the Internet’s vast and ever-growing archive. From the most mainstream star to the most obscure lost artist, five decades of music, video and information is just a mouse click or scroll-wheel twirl from our ears and eyes. Yet it is precisely this unprecedented proximity and vividness of the past in the digital present that makes book-length cultural analysis more essential than ever. The emerging Cloud is a messy mass of decontextualized sounds and visuals. Long-form music writing supplies an element of distance and abstraction that cuts through retro culture’s welter of senseless sense-impressions and facts, allowing the clear signal of truth to emerge.

Greil Marcus and Chuck Eddy, two legendary rock critics with new books, have adopted radically different approaches to the pursuit of music history’s elusive truths: the iconographer versus the iconoclast. In a 1986 interview, the young Eddy declared that “the thing that bugs me about rock criticism more than anything else, and this applies to both Marcus and Christgau . . . is what I would call a hero-worship syndrome.”

Marcus has never been quite as reverential as Eddy made out, but he is interested in making the music he loves seem as important as possible. One of Marcus’s writing tics is variations on the phrase “the stakes” which crop up whenever he feels there’s something world-historical and momentous at play in a particular song or performance. Of The Doors’s “Take It As It Comes”, he writes “there’s too much at stake. Too much has been left behind.” Eddy is far less invested in notions of significance and resonance; he’s more concerned with the sheer pleasure of music, which for him includes all the amusement that can be extracted from it, often at the artist’s expense. Eddy’s urge to deride can sometimes seem to over-ride his delight in the music. But it also reflects his gut reflex to demystify—to bring music back into the realm of everyday life, in pointed contrast to the lofty-minded Marcus’s attraction to the instant myths that spring up around rock.

Marcus’s books have always combined a historian’s scrupulousness with facts (unlike his British counterpart Nik Cohn, who never let accuracy get in the way of a good story) with an alertness to the larger-than-life dimensions of what Cohn once called “Superpop . . . the image, hype and beautiful flash of rock'n'roll music.” As rock’s first self-conscious mythographers, The Doors are such a perfect subject for this approach that it makes you wonder why Marcus waited so long to write a book about them.

Too often in his last decade of output, there’s been a feeling of sinewy strain to Marcus’s prose, like an ageing acrobat struggling to pull off the tricks that worked so well before. The Shape of Things To Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, for instance, reached repeatedly for a profundity that eluded the author’s grasp. But last year’s Van Morrison: When that Rough God Goes Riding, a slim volume on the stout singer from Ulster, showed signs of renewed agility. Now The Doors is a firm stride towards the recovery of full powers. Like the preceding book about another mystic-minstrel named Morrison, The Doors is not a rock bio or an exhaustive study of a band’s oeuvre, but a deliberately fragmentary overview that seeks to convey the essence of the band via brief meditations triggered by particular songs and performances.

A long-established Marcus technique is his knack of writing about a song as if it were a drama unfolding in real time, as though the band were discovering what the tune is about during its recording. This is fiction, of course: in most cases, songs are written and honed further through live performance long before being taken into the studio, where the band runs through multiple takes and builds up the sound through overdubs until the recording achieves the definitive and polished form that the world hears. Marcus’s odd insistence on treating song as events rather than constructions can get wearing. The Doors features endless variations on tropes of an “untold story” gradually emerging out of a song. Elsewhere the song is personified: “as the music edged into its seventh minute, it seemed to have developed a mind of its own: you can hear the song musing over itself” But this overfamiliar approach picks up new credence here, because many of the songs Marcus examines are not studio versions but elongated and improvisatory concert renditions bootlegged by fans. Gathered for official release in 2003 as the four-disc set Boot Yer Butt!, these lo-fi recordings are genuine real-time events: We hear the inebriated Morrison ad-libbing, the band struggling to keep up or pushing the music even further out. Many of these versions document, as Marcus writes, “the drama of a band at war with its audience,” reflecting Morrison’s determination to take the Doors out of the realm of entertainment and into confrontational living theater.

This spirit matches Marcus’s own fierce commitment to bringing back a sense of rock as an Event, a series of ruptures in History, and to rescue the music from the dead time of repetition and nostalgia. The latter phenomenon is explored in a brilliant chapter entitled “The Doors in the so-called Sixties”. It starts with Marcus’s surprise at constantly hearing the Doors on his car radio during the late 2000s and his further astonishment that songs like “L.A. Woman” had “never sounded so relentless, so unsatisfied, in . . . 1971 as they did forty years later.” Discussing Oliver Stone’s Doors biopic (which, unusually, he rates highly), Marcus pinpoints the secret reason behind the media’s obsessive drive to commemorate and revisit the Sixties: “A sense that since [then], life had been empty . . . The anniversaries were attempted funerals . . . But the funeral never seemed to end, and the burial never seemed complete.” Although Marcus has himself arguably been complicit in this nostalgia industry through authoring several books about Dylan, he writes about his own resentment of the babyboomers’s stranglehold on rock history, which has burdened subsequent generations with a sense of belatedness: “then was when it all happened.... you were born at the wrong time; you missed it.” Waiting in line to see Oliver Stone’s movie, surrounded by kids in their teens and twenties, Marcus wonders “why they had no culture of their own to rebuke us with.”

In The Doors, though, Marcus comes to terms with the idea that the greatest Sixties music cannot be buried and forgotten—whatever the fate that befell the musicians in the ensuing years: death, disgrace, dwindling powers—because it still feels too alive. Despite the encrusted legends and the attrition of repetition, the rolling majesty of the Doors’s supreme songs and the clarity and mystery of Morrison’s best lines (“learn to forget,” “speak in secret alphabets,” and so many more) ring out with the force of its original newness and nowness. Marcus connects this imperishable potency and promise to specific properties of the band’s playing: “Early on, Robby Krieger developed a way of saying, in a very few quiet, spaced notes on his guitar, that something was about to happen.”

The triumphant sections of The Doors recreate the sensation of hearing these songs for the first time. There’s a thrilling blow-by-blow account of “The End,” two great takes on different “Light My Fire” performances, and many marvelous evocations of particular passages of playing, from the few seconds of eerie Ray Manzarek organ at the start of “Strange Days,” to “LA Woman,” where Krieger’s guitar is “thin and loose, intricate and casual, serious and quick as thought itself.”

The closer that Marcus sticks to the music, the better; he draws strength from its inexhaustible vigor. But when Marcus strays, things get more labored and less convincing, as with the meandering attempt to use “20th Century Fox” as a route through Pop Art. Ultimately, The Doors is rather like a Doors album, or more precisely, those five Doors LPs that followed the matchless self-titled debut: Killer and filler juxtaposed such that it’s hard to believe the same band was responsible.

Marcus stays faithful to how the band’s records impacted him as a first-time, at-the-time listener: blown away by the debut, disappointed by most everything that came after except for the odd twilight track like “Roadhouse Blues”. Exactly eighteen years younger than Marcus, I first encountered The Doors through various “best of...”’s, which means that the overfamiliarity of the debut’s famous tracks ensured that the album, when I finally heard it, couldn’t possibly have the same overwhelming effect; conversely, the later LPs seemed “pretty great” because I adored the nuggets salvaged from them for anthologies like Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine.

This ahistorical perspective, already possible in the late ’70s, has intensified with the ensuing decades: Each new generation hears rock’s sprawling, ever-accumulating past as an out-of-sequence jumble. The link between music and History that has obsessed Marcus from 1975's Mystery Train onwards, and which he wants to protect and resurrect, is corroded by this encroaching atemporality, the result of a revolution in music delivery systems, mechanisms such as iPod shuffle and Spotify that insidiously dissolve the divisions between decades and genres. But fans and critics have also actively hastened this process, eagerly rearranging rock and pop history into new shapes, deposing established greats from the rock pantheon and elevating lesser lights. Foremost among these revisionist critics is Chuck Eddy.

The upstart Eddy began his career voicing frustration with his babyboomer elders (including Marcus) who “miss a lot” (meaning, mainly, new music evolving out of the traditions of metal and disco). Reviewing one of Aerosmith’s mid-90s albums, Eddy jousted again with Marcus, taking issue with the latter’s dismissal of the band as destined to be a mere footnote in rock history. Eddy argued that this was not only condescending to the middle-American masses who raised lighters to songs like “Dream On,” but ignored the way Aerosmith had anticipated and even contributed to hip hop (with “Walk This Way”). The spat contrasted Marcus’s belief in the righteous necessity of a rock canon with Eddy’s compulsion—at once moral and temperamental—to deface and contradict that canon at every opportunity. This attitude infused Eddy’s The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘N’Roll: A Misguided Tour Through Popular Music (1997) and it can be found on almost every page of his new anthology Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism.

Near the end of the book, sounding sincerely indignant, Eddy rejects his reputation as a contrarian. Still, it’s hard to think of another word to characterize a taste trajectory that’s veered so consistently far from the music that his rockcrit peers consider relevant and praiseworthy. All critics have pet bands that nobody else in the profession has any time for, but Eddy is a bit like the dotty old lady with forty cats. He’s often way out of alignment with critical consensus but he’s not a straightforward populist either. His first book, 1991’s wonderfully heterodox heavy metal guide Stairway To Hell, snubbed mega-selling mainstays of the genre such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in favor of minor figures like Kix and Teena Marie.

Eddy’s eccentricity is not only refreshing and entertaining; it’s also valuable. Whether it’s aberrant taste or simple capriciousness (he admits in one early piece, “frankly, if I tried hard enough, I could probably convince myself that any tripe was terrific”), something compels Eddy to pay attention to music that no other music journalist can be bothered with with (Oi!-punk bands still operating today, for instance). Not only is this a vital counterbalance to the critical herd-mind, but it’s also a reminder of how much music-making and music-fandom exist outside the media radar, and never make it into the official narrative.

If rock history written long after the event can’t help but be distorted by a hindsight-wise sensibility, collections of music journalism suffer from the opposite problem, as Eddy notes, writing of “the folly of reviewing records in real time, when ten or twenty years down the line might be more reliable.” His dispatches from the frontlines of music journalism contain many examples of Eddy being precociously on-the-money: he notices the shape-of-grunge-to-come stirring in the Pacific Northwest as early as 1986, and celebrates acid house before hardly anybody outside of Chicago had heard of it. But this clairvoyance is sabotaged by a tendency to prematurely write things off. By 1989, Eddy’s decided that “all that Seattle crap sounded the same and would never amount to nothing.” He would be equally dismissive of acid house’s European progeny, rave culture.

Of course, rock writing isn’t really about racing tips. It can, however, be about a kind of prophetic or messianic mode of utterance, whose cadences are thrilling even when you don’t share the writer’s own faith. That’s one reason why, if I had to choose between Marcus and Eddy, I’d probably go with the author of The Doors. Marcus’s impulse to aggrandize, even deify, his subjects, leads him to godlike music more reliably than Eddy’s impulse to do the opposite: Wisdom trumps wisecracks.