Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bunk rock

I gave up hope for rock criticism developing into a respectable form of criticism when I realized that it was, for the most part, a pissing contest for most of the guys who decided to try their hand at it. For every Bangs and Young there were dozens of lesser lights who proved, at length, that they could make noise aplenty but offer little or no light on the subject. Much of it has to do with how well the current state of the music happens to be, of course, but pop music criticism did come to the point where everyone was recycling what everyone had already written, and the two trajectories being offered readers by the end of the seventies was incomprehensible Greil Marcus/Dave Marsh obscurantism, which insisted that the music they listened to in college dorms was the Spenglarian peak of civilization and that every note played afterwards was an inferior facsimile of the authentic , or the knee jerk Bangs imitations where wave after wave of typing nitwits missed out on Lester's capacity for feeling deep emotion and his brand of self-criticism and instead freight us with jabbering sarcasm by the car load. Jim DeRogatis , rock critic for various outlets , author of the Lester Bangs biiography "Let It Blurt", rounded up a slew of younger, Generation X pop writers and invited them to select a classic rock album, an album, by consensus, considered to be Canonical and there for inarguably great and then to debunk an older generation of critics' claim for the lasting greatness of those records. It's an interesting idea, I admit, but the result, an anthology called "Kill Your Idols" is a miserably strident , one note mass of pages dedicated to puerile dismissals of a lot of good, honest music. "Snotty" doesn't do that particular disaster justice.

The problem with the generation of rock critics who followed the late Lester Bangs was that too many of them were attempting to duplicate Bangs' signature and singular ability to write movingly about why rock and roll stars make terrible heroes. Like many of us, Bangs became disillusioned with rock and roll when he discovered that those he admired and was obsessed by--Lou Reed, Miles Davis, and Black Sabbath--were not saints. The discovery of their clay feet, their egos and the realization that rock and roll culture was a thick cluster of bullshit and pretentiousness didn't stymie Bangs' writing. It, in fact, was the basis of Bangs transcending his own limits and finding something new to consider in this. Sadly, he died before he could enter another great period of prose writing. "Kill Your Idols", edited by Jim DeRogatis, is an anthology that is intended, I suspect to be the Ant- "Stranded", the Greil Marcus edited collection where he commissioned a number of leading pop music writers and asked them to write at length about what one rock and roll album they would want to be left on a desert island with; it's not a perfect record--then New York Times rock critic John Rockwell chose "Back in the USA" by Linda Ronstadt and couldn't mount a persuasive defense of the disc--but it did contain a masterpiece by Bangs, his write up of Van Morrison's album "Astral Weeks". His reading of the tune "Madame George" is a staggering example of lyric empathy, a truly heroic form of criticism. "Kill Your Idols", in reverse emulation, assigns a group of younger reviewers who are tasked with debunking the sacred cows of the rock and roll generation before them; we have, in effect, pages full of deadening sarcasm from a crew who show none of the humor or sympathy that were Bangs best qualities. Bangs, of course, was smart enough not to take himself too seriously; he knew he was as absurd as the musicians he scrutinized.

"Kill Your Idols" seemed like a good idea when I bought the book, offering up the chance for a younger set of rock critics to give a counter argument to the well made assertions of the essayists from the early Rolling Stone/Crawdaddy/Village Voice days who's finely tuned critiques gave us what we consider now to be the Rock Canon. The problem, though, is that editor Jim Derogatis didn't have that in mind when he gathered up this assortment of Angry Young Critics and changed them with disassembling the likes of Pink Floyd, The Beatles, the MC5; countering a well phrased and keenly argued position requires an equally well phrased alternative view and one may go so far as to suggest the fresher view point needs to be keener, finer, sharper. Derogatis, pop and rock music critic for the Chicago Sun Times, author of the estimable Lester Bangs biography Let It Blurt, had worked years ago as record review editor of Rolling Stone and found himself getting fired when he couldn't abide by publisher Jan Wenner's policy of not giving unfavorable reviews to his favorite musicians.

His resentment toward Wenner and Rolling Stone's institutional claims of being a power broker as far as rock band reputations were concerned is understandable, but his motivation is more payback than substantial refutation of conventional wisdom. The Angry Young Critics were too fast out of the starting gate and in a collective haste to bring down the walls of the Rock Establishment wind up being less the Buckley or the Vidal piercing pomposity and pretension than , say, a pack of small yapping dogs barking at anything passing by the back yard fence. The likes of Christgau, Marcus and Marsh provoke you easily enough to formulate responses of your own, but none of the reviews have the makings of being set aside as a classic of a landmark debunking; there is not a choice paragraph or phrase one comes away with.

Even on albums that I think are over-rated, such as John Lennon's Double Fantasy, you think they're hedging their bets; a writer wanting to bring Lennon's post-Beatles reputation down a notch would have selected the iconic primal scream album Plastic Ono Band (to slice and dice. But the writers here never bite off more than they can chew; sarcasm, confessions of boredom and flagging attempts at devil's advocacy make this a noisy, nit picky book whose conceit at offering another view of Rock and Roll legacy contains the sort of hubris these guys and gals claim sickens them. This is collection of useless nastiness, a knee jerk contrarianism of the sort that one over hears in bookstores between knuckle dragging dilettantes who cannot stand being alive if they can't hear themselves bray. Yes, "Kill Your Idols" is that annoying, an irritation made worse but what could have been a fine idea.