Saturday, June 15, 2002 :::
Alec Bemis, an old chum from the halcyon rock-n-roll fanzine days (former publisher of JABONI YOUTH, a fine periodical that was graceful enough to publish some thoughts of mine on rock and capitalism) (and also majordomo of the record label Brassland, issuers of the Clogs THOM’S NIGHT OUT, a slice of heavily lovely orchestral wonderment that it would alternately sooth and amaze you to hear) published a package of essays in the LA WEEKLY this week on the topic of rock criticism’s past, present, and future (or at least so it was presented).
The essays – you should read them, go to laweekly.com or go down to the corner if you’re lucky enough to live in LA, I’m trying to pretend this is xeroxed and stapled and not on the World Wide Web -- inspired initially a quick and relatively thoughtless email to Alec from me; a response from him; a response from me; and (now) further thoughts from me. As continuing the correspondence privately would make it seem (if it didn’t already) as if I were rudely hectoring and/or attacking him – not at all my intention, I have great respect for him, his mind, his writing, his car, and all sorts of other things about him -- I’m taking it to the streets, like my men the Doobies.
Alec’s story – full cover package titled “Is Rock Criticism Dead?” – spends only a little time—an introductory essay—addressing that question; its bulk is dedicated to profiles of Richard Meltzer (long) and Paul Williams (not so long). This is a question that for whatever reason is still important to me, and appeared by bizarre coincidence just a day after I made the decision to revive SURRENDER: A JOURNAL OF ETHICS, dedicated to (among other esoteric goals) trying to answer that question (and implicitly, probably, saying “yes.”) Paul Williams, in his kozmik hippie DAS ENERGI mode would find this deeply significant (almost like this afternoon when I got in the mail unexpectedly from Sweden a burn of CLIMATE OF HUNTER even as I was listening to the copy of SCOTT 4 that the very same old friend had mailed me from Sweden months back). I was so stunned I paid some credit card bills and entered a sweepstakes.
The way Alec spins it is: in an age of splintered audience and annoyingly and impossibly cornucopian cultural production, we need writers as idiosyncratic and passionate as th’ Meltz and Pauly W. to—what? Help guide us to good records? Don’t think so, since Alec says in private correspondence (and he’s probably right) that’s a reductionist and almost philistine thing to expect from critics. Though I confess, as much as I’ve tried to exorcise it, all those hours poring over Christgau’s 70s Record Guide in high school looking for good new records has given me a soft spot for rockcrit-as-consumer-guide—perhaps because, while there’s plenty, plenty, plenty good and passionate and idiosyncratic writing in the world that’s NOT about records, I, goddamnit, can’t find anyone reliable to tell me what records I might want to hear!
Magazine journalism is rarely allowed to just stand by itself and BE. It usually requires being framed, sold, to make excuses for itself, and that really isn’t fair to either writer or reader. (It makes editors happy, apparently.) So I came at Alec in my private note with what probably sounded like a mean-spirited attack but was in fact based on admiration (and, of course, jealousy): I granted that profiling Meltzer, profiling Williams, were both interesting ideas—but WHY?
And I meant WHY in backstage maneuvering mode—believe me, I don’t PERSONALLY need an excuse to read about those guys. And the natural publicity moment for Meltzer—probably the last one he’ll have in this life—was a year or so ago when his Da Capo anthology of rock writings A WHORE JUST LIKE THE REST came out. As for Williams, well, he has a new book of reviews collected from his revived CRAWDADDY out, but it isn’t getting much press attention, nor, I predict, will it, outside of this story. Even Alec only acknowledges it for a throwaway sentence.
So, I suspected, Alec had to sell the idea to an editor as being something bigger and more than itself. (From correspondence with Alec, it doesn’t sound like it was that hard—that the WEEKLY’s editors aren’t so obsessed with that awful “why? Why now?” question that kills so many interesting ideas in mag journalism.) Thus, it gets framed as being bigthink about rock criticism and its sad state.
But that's where too many questions are raised and not answered, too many hints dropped obliquely. Is the ‘zine revolution *that* over (I'm not the one to answer) that it is barely worth mentioning? (Alec condemns it offhandedly as a world where critics “write about consensus ‘underground’ artists as predictably as the mass media cover blockbusters and major-label superhits.”) Because that was where, back when it was important to me (1989-1996 approx) I found rock criticism that was funnier and meaner and frankly *better educated on the subject* (the real thing that shines through most of Meltzer's writings about rock to me isn't that, contra Jon Pareles, he heard the sound where others only tried pedantically to scribble down the words, but that he didn't give a fuck about the music *at all* except as a signifier and hook for the joke, which half the time was, hey, I'm supposed to be writing about music *but I'm really not*) (When you get to GULCHER or THE NIGHT (ALONE), that joke is gone and what's left? Ask me when I've been able to get through the damn things) than Meltzer *ever* was. I mean, really, LISTEN to SGT PEPPERS and try to reconcile it with something Alec quotes Meltzer as saying—“a summing up the whole thing in a soft cataclysmic combination of death, sleep and multiplicity/variety…a really real decisive end-of-culture/end-of-the-world thing.” (Hey, “Lovely Rita”’s a pleasant tune and all, but…)—and see if you can take Meltzer as anything less or more than maybe funny and if not funny than who KNOWS what.
As for Paul Williams, well, he’s such a gentle soul, so openhearted gosh-wow sensitivo (and I can re-read his amazing Dylan books with pleasure during any ol' bathroom visit or snack break) that it would take a shitheel like Meltzer to say a bad word about him. (I wish Alec had quoted these two rock-write heroes on the topic of each other) But jeez, Williams is a guy who is able with a straight face, a wide-open soul, and clean, fresh breath to declare that Brian Wilson's IMAGINATION was some sort of holy precious gift from the world-soul (and until then I thought I was as faraway gone into up B. Wilson's intestines as a fanboy could be, but Paul, like all good writers, shows us possibilities of thought and feeling beyond our imaginings)....well, my point, and I didn't think I had one, is that neither of these guys have anything at all to do with rock criticism today or in the past era, and maybe that was the point or did Alec pull a fast one on his editor?
But it did raise a question: are there still writers like this in rockcrit and does it matter? In the fanzine ‘80s and ‘90s there were mini Meltzer's who did him one or two better, and the modern Paul Williams just *has* to be Glenn MacDonald of www.furia.com/twas (deeply personal and sensitive discussion, with both eyes on personal taste and vision and neither on the market, and with particular judgements as to classichood that no one else sane will be able to hang with)—which brings us to the main PROBLEM (perhaps just my main problem of course). The important thing Meltzer, MacDonald, and Williams all lack is......good fucking TASTE and the ability to actually hear and judge rock n' roll on its actual merits and explain the whys and hows.
Yes, I'm enough of a jerk to suggest that the REAL problem with rock writing is, I can't rely on any of their goddamn tastes! Alec actually quotes Meltzer admitting that THE DOORS are his favorite band! I mean, criticism about criticism about criticism is all interesting – honestly, it is – but shouldn’t one vital element of criticism – one Alec never mentions—be the ability to discern and understand good from bad? I am wading into areas where my knowledge is shallow, but, let’s take standard litcrit: sure, theory and approach are all much discussed and interesting and help make reputations, but isn’t actually having value judgements that aren’t patently absurd part of what makes reputation? (Go back before the 1960s, and someone can tell me I’m wrong, I won’t cry.) Would a critic who, say, thought Hubert Selby was the greatest writer ever be considered particularly important or valuable? Well, maybe he would—as someone to explain what’s so good about Hubert Selby. But then again, why should we even take someone seriously who thinks such a thing? (Go back to Meltzer and the Doors.) (Williams seems to have reasonably solid taste, just gets overemotional at times.) (But “South American” really is a great song, and Williams helped me realize it.) (Check out his top 100 singles of all time book as well.)
But then we run into a big problem with rock criticism—while there is a reasonably solid rock canon and most savvy record collectors are familiar with it (both the standard one where Beatles, Motown, Dylan, etc. rule and Nirvana was the last classic, the more record clerky one that brings Forever Changes and Paris 1919 into the mix, or the more seriously “I have too many records” peculiar ones where Can, Scott Walker, Faust, Pearls Before Swine, whoever rule the roost) (and you the record buyer won’t go too wrong with any of the many canons) I don’t think anyone has done a very good job helping articulate overarching standards about what makes for great pop/rock music. (Maybe the same is true for literature? I don’t think so, but….) I mean, catchy/listenable/great melodies aren’t enough, because hardly anyone thinks the Knickerbockers or early Bee Gees or the Cowsills are as “great” or “important” as the Beatles. Just for example. God, please, let us not go on this way.
So what I think is important in considering rock criticism – especially in a world where we are all choking on compact discs – is the question, totally elided by this whole story package, of people who, however good and emotional and energetic or peculiar they may be as writers (the relevant adjectives for Meltzer and Williams who are, as Alec doesn’t stress enough, the major rock writers who are MOST likely to be found aggravatingly unreadable by the most people [I think my prejudices -- Meltzer usually not so hot though I love Blue Oyster Cult, Williams often a joy but you need to turn him down from 11 in your mind -- are clear, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years trying to make my way pleasingly and smartly though the forest of books and records, it’s not to trust my own enmities -- there is way too much that I’ve thought was worthless or not for me and, to my happiness, later learned I was wrong about. And I will, really will, be trying to get all the way through Gulcher some day, biomedical advances willing), THEY DON’T SEEM TO BE RELIABLE JUDGES AS TO WHAT IS ACTUALLY GOOD.
There, I’ve pretended that there is actually an answer to that question. I used to at least believe that if individuals couldn’t always be trusted (at best, I’ve found some whose praise could be trusted – if they said it was great, it was at least really good – but their enmities needed to be ignored [see Christgau up until 1985 or so]) then at least the whole zeitgeist could. Then from 1998 on I began noticing that every time I bought a record because everyone seemed to be talking it up and liking it, I almost invariably hated it (or at least couldn’t care less about it), and turned cruel, mean, and heartless inside, became a jazz fan (just like Meltzer!) (for me, probably just an excuse to keep going to record stores and spending money---hey, whole new sections to browse through!) and just listened to Dylan and the Beach Boys all the time.
But I had a revelation recently that may be stupidly obvious, but then again most rock crits never address the actual realities of how, when, and under what circumstances music is used in our lives. I found that the latest two "well everyone else seems to like 'em..." rock records, the Strokes and Wilco, actually were really great. But furthermore, I only began noticing that after making myself out of boredom and sticktoitiveness, listen to them each over 15 times.
And now the Strokes actually sounds --- believe it or don't ---like REVELATORY GENIUS (or at least at the listen I gave it last night)---hard to explain. As I indulge in my desultory stabs at rockcrit for an unnamed alternative weekly, I find myself listening to any assigned record always about three more times than I would if I'd merely BOUGHT the thing. As a wise man—Edward Shils?--once said, "the cheapest way to obtain a book remains to buy it"--true of records as well. And I always find that I kinda sorta find myself with good things to say if I make myself listen enough. I mean, why say anything about one record out of 300 if you are just going to say, waste of time, brothers?
I don't know---maybe it IS possible to make a 300 word squib about a record stand manfully by itself as an example of the modern soul alive and awake (is that what Meltzer does these days?) but some force---the $60 maybe--always made me feel some DEBT to the typical reader whoever the fuck that might be---and then I realized I was SO MUCH every reason that I as a 20 year old record freak (back when I should have been writing professionally about the shit because I heard it all, lived it, loved it, so passionately and alertly) thought most pro rock crits seemed bored, boring, out of touch, whatever. Seems like the typical realities of professionalism in the rockwrite biz almost GUARANTEE that by the time someone IS paying you 60 bucks to write 300 words about a record you'll be out of touch, out of time, out of your head, etc. Or, even worse, so stuck in the system that you HAVE to gin up some excitement about a new band or record on a weekly/monthly/quarterly schedule. And, as no one likes being a liar or a villain, you will find yourself believing it. And you will find yourself lying to your readers. (Does the Strokes CD really sound that great the 16th time? Only one way to find out, my friend.)
This is so simple and obvious it has to be complete bullshit, but the REAL KEY to loving rock records might just be TO LISTEN TO THEM A WHOLE, WHOLE BUNCH which means that you have to stop being an obsessive acquisitive jackass like me and buying about one every fucking day--where they all get processed more than heard and then filed and forgotten.
I should have some new discipline where everyday I grab some record off the shelf and listen to it four times in a row. This more closely approximates how I used to live with rock back when it REALLY got to me, circa 1984-95. After three listens I thought all the songs on the Strokes CD pretty much sounded the same and I'd had enough. But now…(mistrusting the hype, I only bought it after they charmed my in a huge polo field out in Indio.)
But maybe it's just me. Probably it's just me. And probably I don't need to know the facts or the analysis about the records I hear the way I used to, don't need to know what lyrical couplet all the writers quote, don't need to know the "word."
But if I did....if I did, Alec....or any of you out there….is there anywhere to get it? Is what Alec was saying with this whole package: no? Because Meltzer and Williams never really were it. I’d like to believe that Alec and I are just too old (both in our 60s) and out of touch to be on top of all the great writing about the newest neatest stuff. But maybe not. And maybe if I hadn’t been 22 and overly excited, I wouldn’t have thought all the zine writers I liked circa 1989-95 were that great either. But I can still thumb through old Brian Berger zines (to pick the most absurd example) and smile and be content.
And if anybody asks me: Is it easy to find a great record? I’ll say it’s easily done, you just pick any one, and listen to it 20 times in a week.
::: posted by Brian at 2:41 PM
Wednesday, June 12, 2002 :::
It has been six years since the last issue of Surrender, the now mostly-out-of-print-let-me-check-my-closet issue, with the legendarily grueling 33-page interview with Gregg Turkington and very detailed, extremely well-thought-out comments on every book I had read and every record I'd listened to that year. This is now the beginnings of Surrender #6.
Since then, electricity has been invented and the printing press (and "borrowed" xerography) made obsolete. The aesthetic of Surrender was always at the service of a spicy combination of sloth and a genuine inability to understand what made for an appealing design, so I am thankful to the people in The High-Tech Industry (TM) for allowing me this simple, clean, efficient, low-CO2 producing means to tell you what I really think.
Coming soon: All the books I've finished so far in 2002, working backwards.
::: posted by Brian at 5:04 PM
Never mind. It turns out I don't your help. I can take care of this just fine, thank you. In fact, just leave me alone. Please. Just for minute.
::: posted by Brian at 4:55 PM
::: posted by Brian at 4:38 PM