Village Voice Literary Supplement (VLS), 1999
by Simon Reynolds
Imagine rock music as a beached whale's carcass. What seems like intense activity (all those bands!) is really necrotic vitality--a seething maggot horde living off the rotting flesh of a moribund culture. In their teeming tediousness, rock books exist on an even lower plane--microbial parasites who live off the maggots.
In the Sixties, rock literature barely existed because the culture was moving so fast nobody had time to sit back and ruminate. The first rock tomes, Richard Melzer's Aesthetics of Rock, Paul Williams's Outlaw Blues and Nik Cohn's Awopbopaloobop, came out as the decade's momentum was winding down, establishing the abiding syndrome of the rock book as tombstone to a dead (or at least ailing) obsession. Rock's current crisis of overdocumentation suggests that there's an inverse ratio between the vitality of a popular music and the amount of book-length analyses it generates. Compare rock (or the equally mined-to-exhaustion seams of jazz and blues) with rap and rave, the two most vital forms of modern music,which each occupy barely half a shelf in the music book departments of Tower and Virgin. Coincidence? I think not.
Rock biography, especially, presents a panorama of shame--from the bustling micro-disciplines of Beatlesology, Elvisology, Hendrixology et al (each occuping multiple shelves), through the redundancy-afflicted realm of cult figure biographies (does the world really need four Costello tomes? Two on Scott Walker?), to the mirthless absurdity of rocksploitation pulp (an Ian Gillan memoir, a 436 page account of Badfinger's tragic arc, a book on all five phases of Manfred Mann).
Most rock biography operates as though a secret contract has been drawn up between writer and reader: keep under wraps all the emotional/sociocultural resonance stuff (the real reasons, presumably, why the writer and reader is obsessed with the artist in the first place), stick to the facts. The result, 19 times out of 20: a drily delineated career trajectory of recording sessions, releases dates, intra-band conflicts, and record company hassles.
Leaving auteurism for the wider world of genre-focussed or thematic rock books, you find similar problems of redundancy. Virtually every last area of and angle on rock has been covered. Take progressive rock, for instance: to adapt the old complaint about buses, you wait twenty years, and three come at once--Edward Macan's English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture ; Paul Stump's The Music's All That Matters; Bill Martin's Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock. The last ten months have seen two how-to-be-hip guides (Roni Sarig's The Secret History of Rock, Richie Unterberger's Unknown Legends of Rock'n'Roll) and additions to the burgeoning subgenre of rock necrography (The Walrus Was Paul: The Great Beatle Death Clues
by R.Gary Pattersons and Better To Burn Out by Dave Thompson, industrious author of
more than fifty books). These days, it seems almost anything tangentially related to rock'n'roll can get between covers: a history of Skiffle (a long-forgotten pre-Beatles Brit-craze), the quasi-Beat scribblings of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo (whose jrnls80s features, amongst other ephemera, postcards to friends dating back to 1980 --did Ranaldo keep copies? Of all of them, or just the "poetic" ones?).
But even with the 5 percent of rock lit that plausibly meets a demand and achieves a measure of quality, there's still the strange suspicion that anyone attempting to write a book about rock is somehow missing the point. (I speak here as the perpetrator of three). Admittedly, these doubts are not restricted to rock; "There are no good books on music," declared Sir Thomas Beecham decades before "Blue Suede Shoes". Still, there is something about the concept of the "rock book" that seems intrinsically misguided. The retrospective tone and dour, stolid bulk of the book form seems to betray pop's essential immediacy.
One measure of rock lit might be the extent to which a book transmits the present-
tense heat of obsession. But this criterion only opens up another can of worms, as there are different modes of obsession. Some are more effective at communicating the contagion of enthusiasm than others.
As an example of "bad" (tending towards idiot-savant data-accumulation) obsession I'd offer Clinton Heylin, the respected Dylanologist whose oeuvre includes Bob Dylan: Day By Day, and Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions, 1960-1964, amongst others. Fine, let him crawl over history like a fly on a turd; it's only Bob Dylan after all. But recently, the fact-fiending Heylin's anti-Midas touch has extended to the music that changed my life. His Never Mind The Bollocks (Schirmer)--a session-by- session account of the making of that world-shaking album--is so remote from any tenable "spirit of punk" that it beggars belief. This kind of nuts-and-bolts, behind-the-scenes approach needn't be deathly dry--witness Revolution In The Head, Ian McDonald's fascinating song-by-song history of the Beatles. But unlike McDonald, Heylin gives no indication of why the Sex Pistols mattered to the world, or indeed to the author. Interviewing engineer/producers like Chris Spedding and Dave Goodman, Heylin painstakingly scrubs away any glint of myth to reveal the prosaic reality of line inputs and overdubs. This slim volume is a microcosm of the broader problem with rock book overload: the notion that you can never know too much about your subject.
Never Mind The Bollocks ends with contemporaneous reviews of the
album, including Julie Burchill's piece for the New Musical Express. Capturing the necrophile mood that surrounded punk even in late 1977 (Bollocks came out when the band's cultural life was ebbing) Julie Burchill mocks the collectors of rare Pistols singles and bootlegs: "You wanna collect butterflies? Very fulfilling, collecting things.... Keep you satisfied, make you fat and old, queuing for the rock'n'roll show." Funnily enough, Heylin wrote a 438 page book on the subject, Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry, arguing that the overpriced and illegal recordings "have reminded fans that rock'n'roll is about 'the moment'... " The bootleg might be the ultimate example of rock fandom as bad faith: the pre-doomed attempt to transcend the commodity relation inevitably degenerating into the ultimate form of commodity-fetishism. Fetishism's "error" is to mistake the part for the whole, the relic for presence. Stockpiling "lost moments" until the daylight of the present is blocked out, the bootleg completist winds up like Miss Haversham in Great Expectations, self-interred in a necropolis of morbid obsession.
What, then, is "good" obsession? Naturally, it's in the eye of the beholder. My examplars might include renegade biographer Fred Vermorel, who always uses his subjects (Kate Bush, Vivienne Westwood) as an excuse to write about his own obsessions (the middle section of the Westwood bio is basically a Vermorel memoir of life as an art student in the Sixties). Then there's Michel Gaillot's monograph Techno: An Artistic and Political Laboratory of the Present (Editions Dis Voir)-- an argument, sleekly unburdened by factual baggage, that rave is the re-efflorescence of sacred festivity in the midst of our atomized, secular society; a "Dionysia of modern times" that only works because it is apolitical and un-ideological. Despite the book's theoretical nature and absence of concrete detail, you can tell from the urgency of the prose that Gaillot's brain's been burned by what he's witnessed at raves.
Another exemplary instance of positive obsession is Steve Ball's Playing With Fire: A Search for the Hidden Heart of Rock & Roll (Hohm Press), an eccentric, often unintentionally comic, but ultimately touching attempt to map rock'n'roll onto the author's personal quest for spiritual transformation. Like any fan, Ball projects-- choice moments include a Jungian analysis of Bowie's 1987 Glass Spider tour in terms of androgny and alchemy, and a salute to Harry Chapin as "an invocational shaman". But these lapses of over-interpretation (and taste) are preferable to the fact-crammed, idea-free wasteland that is most rock lit. In his highly idiosyncratic responses, Ball manages to communicate the ways that rock can catalyze an individual's life rather than serve as a compensation for life unlived. Therein might reside the crucial difference between good and bad obsession, between "cultural practice" and mere hobbyism.
True infatuation means risking making a fool of yourself. My favorite bit in Playing
With Fire is the passage where Ball, who's the organist for the spiritually-inclined Arizona
band liars, god & beggars, recalls a gig where a drunken buffoon won't stop trying to hype the crowd to party hard. Onstage, Ball muses that the guy's "really got the right idea in a sort of bassackward kind of way.... he wants... to step out of his usual day-to-day mode of stifling ordinariness and access something else.... Well, good luck my friend. We'll provide the soundtrack for your transmutational bacchanal tonight." The impulse is to snigger at this collision of lofty discourse and base materiality, but then again, maybe that inebriate oaf did find Dionysus in an unknown jam band. Such mundane epiphanies are what music is all about, after all -- not that you'd know it from 95 percent of rocklit.