"there are immaturities, but there are immensities" - Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion)>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
"the fear of being wrong can keep you from being anything at all" - Nayland Blake >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> "It may be foolish to be foolish, but, somehow, even more so, to not be" - Airport Through The Trees
Monday, June 3, 2013
ROCK BOOK OVERLOAD Village Voice Literary Supplement (VLS), 1999
by Simon Reynolds
music as a beached whale's carcass. What seems like intense activity(allthose bands!) is really necrotic vitality--a seething maggot
hordeliving off the rotting fleshof a moribund culture. In their teeming tediousness, rock
books exist on an even lowerplane--microbial parasites who live off the maggots.
Sixties, rock literature barely existed because the culture was moving so fastnobody had time to sit back and ruminate. The first rock tomes,
Richard Melzer'sAesthetics of Rock, Paul Williams's Outlaw Blues and Nik
Cohn's Awopbopaloobop, came out as the decade's momentumwas winding down, establishing the abiding
syndrome of the rock book as tombstone to a dead (or at least ailing) obsession.
Rock's current crisis ofoverdocumentation 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.
biography, especially, presents a panorama of shame--from thebustling micro-disciplines of Beatlesology,Elvisology,Hendrixology et al (eachoccuping multiple shelves), through the redundancy-afflicted
realm ofcult 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
accountof Badfinger's tragic arc, a book on all five phases of
Most rock biography operates as though a secret contract has
been drawn upbetween writer and reader: keep under wrapsall the emotional/sociocultural resonancestuff (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: adrily delineated career trajectory of recording sessions,
releases dates, intra-band conflicts,and record company hassles.
auteurism for the wider world of genre-focussed or thematicrock books, you find similar problems of redundancy.
Virtually every lastarea of and angle on rock has been covered. Take progressive
rock, for instance: to adaptthe old complaint about buses, you wait twenty years, and
three come at once--EdwardMacan's English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture ;
Paul Stump'sThe Music's All That Matters; BillMartin's Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive
Rock. The last ten months haveseen two how-to-be-hip guides (Roni Sarig's The Secret
History of Rock, RichieUnterberger'sUnknown
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 byDave Thompson, industrious author of
more than fifty books). These days, it seems almost anything
tangentially related torock'n'roll can get between covers: a history ofSkiffle (a long-forgotten pre-Beatles Brit-craze), the quasi-Beat scribblings ofSonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo (whose
jrnls80sfeatures, amongst other ephemera, postcards to friends
dating back to 1980 --did Ranaldokeep copies? Of all of them, or just the
But even with
the 5 percent of rock lit that plausibly meets a demand and achievesa measure of quality, there's still the strange suspicion
that anyone attempting to write abook about rock is somehow missing the point. (I speak here
as the perpetratorof three). Admittedly, these doubts are not restricted to
rock; "There are no goodbooks 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
ofrock lit might be the extent to which
a book transmits the present-
tense heat of obsession.Butthis 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.
HisNever 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 ofmyth 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 thenecrophile mood that surrounded punk even in late 1977
(Bollocks came out when theband's cultural life was ebbing) Julie Burchill mocks the
collectors ofrare Pistols singlesand 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 ofrock
fandom as bad faith: the pre-doomed attempt to transcend the commodity relationinevitably 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" untilthe daylight of the present is blocked out, the bootleg
completist winds up like MissHaversham 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'sMichel
Gaillot's monograph Techno: AnArtistic 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" thatonly works because it is apolitical and un-ideological.
Despite the book's theoretical natureand absence of concrete detail, you can tell from the
urgency of the prose that Gaillot'sbrain's been burned by what he's witnessed at raves.
exemplary instance ofpositive obsession
is Steve Ball'sPlaying With Fire: A
Search for the Hidden Heart of Rock & Roll (Hohm Press), an eccentric,
oftenunintentionally comic, but ultimately touching attempt to
map rock'n'roll onto the author'spersonal quest for spiritual transformation.Like any fan, Ball projects-- choice momentsinclude a Jungian analysis of Bowie's 1987Glass Spider tour in terms ofandrognyand 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 wastelandthat 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 goodand bad obsession,between "cultural practice" and mere hobbyism.
infatuation means risking making a fool of yourself. My favorite bit in Playing
With Fire is the passage whereBall, who's the organist for the
bandliars, god &
beggars, recalls a gig where a drunken buffoon won'tstop trying to hype the crowd to party hard. Onstage, Ball
muses that the guy's "reallygot the right idea in a sort of bassackward kind of
way....he wants... to step out of hisusual day-to-day mode of stifling ordinariness and access
something else.... Well, goodluck 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 thenagain, maybe that inebriate oafdid find Dionysus in an unknown jam
band.Suchmundane epiphanies are what music is all about, after all --
not that you'd know it from 95percent of rocklit.