Thursday, January 27, 2011

Jim DeRogatis - Kill Your Idols

Apologies for not updating this blog in a few weeks; between moving and gaining a nasty cold the week after I'd moved in, I haven't been in the mood for my usual daily updates.  Anyway, the weather sunny-ing up and my illness receding, I'm back.  Since I've suffered a stuffy headache at all hours for the past week or so, I haven't been inclined to listen to any music, period, much less the clangy racket of the good ol' post-punk 'n roll I've set up on my reviewing schedule.  Instead I've gotten a lot of reading done, as much as I can between cough-syrup induced bouts of stupor.  Which brings us to this stupid book.  The idea is simple: 22 writers write 22 essays, each trashing a particular rock 'classic' that they feel is either overrated or outright sucks.  It's the sort of thing a snotty 24 year old might dash off in twenty minutes on his personal record reviewing site ( ), but hey, I was just starting out when I wrote that (sheepishly whistles, ducks head).  Here are the records smashed:

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
The Beach Boys, Smile
The Who, Tommy
The MC5, Kick Out the Jams
The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Captain Beefheart and & His Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica
Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
Led Zeppelin, untitled (“IV”)
Neil Young, Harvest
The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street
The Eagles, Desperado
Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd
Gram Parsons, GP / Grievous Angel
The Doors, The Best of the Doors
Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon
Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
Patti Smith, Horses
Bob Marley & the Wailers, Exodus
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
Paul & Linda McCartney, Ram
John Lennon / Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy
The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks . . . Here’s the Sex Pistols
Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run
Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Imperial Bedroom
Various artists, My Greatest Exes
U2, The Joshua Tree
Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Nirvana, Nevermind
The Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Radiohead, OK Computer
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Nevermind that the list is, with a few exceptions (Dylan, Costello, Fleetwood Mac - in my opinion; yours may differ) mostly correct, the problem is the smug, anti-boomer Gen X attitude that infects most of these pieces.  DeRogatis has an admittedly understandable grudge against Jan Wenner's Rolling Stone and its narcissistic boomer-centric idea of the rock canon centered around the Holy Year of Our Lord 1967 and the primacy of late '60s/early '70s mainstream rock.  DeRogatis goes overboard with his ridicule, though, with his unexamined late '70s/early '80s punk-rock derived aesthetic assumptions making him as much as a parody as Jan Wenner is of narcisstic boomers.  Sgt. Pepper's and Pet Sounds have by now been targeted as much by the anti-hype as exalted by the hype in the annals of rock criticism, and as such are entirely predictable targets for such an anthology, almost to the point where someone should write an essay extolling Sgt. Pepper's as a pop masterpiece just for counterbalance.  Or not.  It's really just a second-rate collection of Beatles tunes, easily inferior to Revolver or Rubber Soul or Help! - which is the common consensus these days, isn't it?  The essay would have been timelier in 1987, when the 20th anniversary CD reissue was causing so much fanfare to vault it into the Greatest Album of All Time status (a status that it has subsequently delustered over the years).

Glancing over the list, several of the choices seem like too easy of targets.  In what universe are Desperado and Prounounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd considered "classics"?  Or anything besides music for aging drunk rednecks?  Yes, Jim Morrison was a buffoon, and the Doors more of a Holiday Inn lounge act than a convincing rock band - so?  Do you really know anybody over 15 who considers Jimbo a "poet"?  And, uh....Exodus?  Really?  I never even heard of that album before I read this book, and I've never, ever seen it on any canonical lists of classics.  Most normal people regard Marley's two albums with the Wailers to be his peak and his solo career as worthwhile but a step down.  I mean, normal fans, not the fratboys who use the gatefold of Legend to roll joints on.  Double Fantasy?  Why not Imagine or Plastic Ono Band - those are considered Lennon's pair of 'classics', not his late-period commercialized comeback.  And really, I was not aware that anyone outside of George Starostin considered Ram to be a 'classic' or even a very good album.  The general critical and popular consensus is that Paul was great in the Beatles but inexplicably turned to shit in his solo years, so we're hardly goading any sacred cows here.  Why not be really edgy and claim that Paul was shit in the Beatles, too?  Now that might be an interesting essay.  Completely wrongheaded, but at least more interesting than picking such an easy target as "Smile Away".

I'm not going to bother running down my opinions of all 22 essays, given my time, space, and spleen constraints.  A few of the articles are well-written and explain fairly well why the music doesn't work as it should.  Too many of these essays are examples of the worst type of rock criticism, focusing 90% on the lyrics or subjective cultural associations ("My Greatest Exes," is just an autobiographical sketch riffing off songs on mix-tapes her boyfriends made for her - why is this included?  Oh right, that's because Carmél Carrillo is one of the co-editors).  Yeah, so Bono repeats certain key words and phrases over and over.  That's....sort of.....what pop songs do.  Talk about cluelessly missing the point.  And Springsteen is bombastic?  Hold the presses!  A lot (not all) anti-Springsteen critics just don't get it - the operatic melodrama is part of what makes him great. 

But let me mention the decent essays before I forget, the ones that are incisive and not just bitchy.  The articles on Exile on Main Street, Layla, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Trout Mask Replica, Harvest, and Blood on the Tracks make fairly convincing cases for the prosecution, and not so coincidentally are the most solidly researched and argued from a strictly musical perspective.  A few more like those and this might have actually been a book worth reading.  (I'm still scratching my head at who, besides millions of record buyers, considers Harvest a classic - most Neil fans consider it a messily inconsistent sell-out that sets the stage for his anti-commercial Time Fades Away/On the Beach/Tonight's the Night trilogy.)

As for the worst of the worst, it's hard to choose between the article about Rumours, which at no point ever even discusses any of the music.  Instead, it's just a tedious, juvenile assassination fantasy in which the writer guns down Fleetwood Mac at a concert.  That'  Literally, the essay is.....that's it.  But even worse is the essay about Led Zeppelin IV, which take ten pages.  The first half is a gross little tale of Adrian Brijbassi getting a hard-on during a highschool dance, and because the song is "Stairway to Heaven," the erotic friction of the slow dance goes on for an excruciating seven minutes that he can't help but cum in his pants while rubbing up against his partner.  That not at all embarrassing little story that Adrian must have felt the burning need to share out of the way, the final 3 or 4 pages where he tries to talk about the music amount to little more than the now-standardized cliche that, "Led Zep were, like, plagiarists, man."  No analysis, no nothing, just a perfunctory list of blues and rock sources that Zep ripped off, thrown out there on the page with little adornment or convincing argument.

In its defense, this book is a quick read, and let's admit it, negative reviews can be so much fun.  It's often easier to rip something apart than it is to find non-soppy ways to praise something.  As this blog post shows.  Well, I have been in an awful mood these past couple of weeks, so a little bile-blasting is in order.  Maybe I'll feel better next week and get on with the record reviews - reviews of music that I enjoy. 

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