Originally published in: Don't Stop Till You Get Enough, Sept. 2001

A Rock & Roll Critic Is Something to Be

Geologists draw extraordinary conclusions from scant evidence: that the earth is over 4200 million years old; that single-celled life appeared no later than 3700 million years ago, but that our familiar animal phyla only emerged 560 million years ago; that continents move; that whole categories of life have been wiped out by freak events. Such insights are possible because physical processes are simple and ineluctable: the steady decay of radioactive isotopes, the dynamics of heat, the pull of gravity, the orderly piling up of strata, the timely burial of fossils.

While evolution is more complex, it too is constrained by genetics into an orderly phylogeny. It is safe to say that all of today's vertebrates descend from Cambrian chordata, because there's no other way to get here except from there. Scant data can be a blessing: a more manageable set of points to connect, less noise, a clearer path to the big picture. On the other hand, historians can be plagued by too much data, too many idiosyncratic details to discern a big picture.

In the early 1970's, I didn't know squat about geology, but I did know a fair amount about history and its pitfalls, and I was keen on sleuthing out big pictures. I had dropped out of high school, and cocooned myself for what turned out to be a five year crash course in remedial self-education. Starting with beat poetry and the theater of the absurd, I moved on to Eugene Genovese's marxist historiography and Robert Paul Wolff's neokantian philosophy, eventually finding a way to reason about the world. Then, transformed, I ventured out to college, finding a nest of new leftists in St. Louis and an underground paper to work on.

It was there that I stumbled onto rock & roll as subject matter. One guy submitted a tome on the Beach Boys, with a conclusion that I couldn't stomach: "The Beach Boys have created high art." Until then, I had paid scant attention to music, but all my instincts and learning told me that art was class warfare, and high art had to be the vilest form. So I went to work marshalling my arguments, researching, listening, grooving. In the end, I found depth and beauty in Brian Wilson's tunes, but nothing I would taint by placing on a pedestal. Besides, Jan & Dean were more to my taste: faster and trashier.

But after three years in college, I had had enough. I had learned a skill (typesetting), and did what working class kids tend to do: I took a job. I shelved the Frankfurt School, bought records, and read the classics of rock crit: Paul Williams, Lester Bangs, R. Meltzer. In doing so, I found something to write about, and in Robert Christgau's Any Old Way You Choose It, I found a convenient foil. I wrote a review which argued that as long as rock criticism was about personal taste, anyone could do it. Then, to prove my point, I cloned Christgau's Consumer Guide form, and knocked off several sets myself.

I wrote about rock & roll from 1974-1978. I started as a curious, self-published novice, armed with a philosopher's toolkit and the desire to probe deep questions like how music mediates time in a mechanized society. I wound up writing for The Voice, where my ideas and interestes played second fiddle to my expertise and wit. But I stopped writing when The Voice rejected a paean I wrote for English pub rock band Ducks Deluxe, an urgent and perhaps pathetic plea to promote a band that capitalism had given up on.

Twenty-some years later, the interesting question is why I thought pub rock (Ducks Deluxe, Brinsley Schwarz) mattered so much. That's easier to answer now than then. Back then we knew that rock & roll had diffused into every nook and cranny of popular music, but didn't yet fathom that the diffusion was in fact a permanent fracture. One reason was conceptual inertia: as late as the mid-1960s rock & roll was still very much a single mass culture -- teen oriented, AM marketed, racially integrated -- and once that image was formed in our minds, it took a long time for changing reality to dislodge it. Another reason was that the expansion of the rock universe had yet to defy comprehension. This was a time when rock critics became strident moralists: recall Lester Bangs slashing James Taylor, or Ira Robbins wailing on disco.

To me, pub rock was fundamentalist rock & roll: humble and righteous. Others saw it as derivative, but even where they had an argument, I felt that the old truths held, and to be conscious of their history was a good thing. Fact was, rock & roll had a rich history by then, and that history should be fertile ground for more rock & roll -- as Dave Edmunds and Marshall Crenshaw were to prove. And, indeed, pub rock did prove to be important, but more as an incubator for the likes of Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, and Graham Parker, than as a style. Indeed, it never was much of a style: just an offhand "don't mind rockin' tonight."

In 1977, Don Malcolm and I published a fanzine, Terminal Zone, where we offered a survey and map of the known rock universe. We called this "Adventures in Diffusion." The map consisted of a Commercial Center, from which fanned out all sorts of styles, growing less and less commercial as they neared the edge of the page. Projecting this map over time, it would look much like the expanding universe, with the once dense Commercial Center growing ever more vacuous. But the evolution of the rock universe is richer and more complex than cosmology: it involves people.

If the rich history of rock is compressed into bare stratigraphy, a geologist might discern a more fitting metaphor. Rock as we know it today was forged in the equivalent of the Cambrian Explosion, which we can date to 1967-1970. Much as the Cambrian strata reveal the first fully formed ancestors of almost all modern phyla, the 1967-1970 period gave us a plethora of rock fusions (folk, country, blues, jazz, classical, world, avant-garde), genres (funk, punk, heavy metal), innovators and oddballs. This brief period produced an astonishing list of new (at least to rock) artists, who did remarkably new things. For example: Allman Brothers, Captain Beefheart, Miles Davis, Dr. John, Fairport Convention, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, King Crimson, Kraftwerk, Led Zeppelin, John McLaughlin, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Parliament / Funkadelic, Gram Parsons, Pink Floyd, Terry Riley, Ravi Shankar, Sly & the Family Stone, Stooges, Swamp Dogg, Velvet Underground, Neil Young, many more.

Of course, this explosion didn't just happen. It came as a new generation grew up with rock & roll. For them, Elvis Presley was a childhood memory, and Louis Jordan was an almost forgotten voice from before they were born. (Not coincidentally, rap emerged 20 years after the triumphs and tragedies of the civil rights movement, a world that was fundamentally changed for black youths, even if their elders saw it as too much the same.) The LP provided a broader tableau, and FM embraced it, breaking the singles straightjacket. Songwriters found opportunities as rock singers that their Tin Pan Alley forebears never enjoyed. Drugs stirred things up. And while the market expanded, its discontents multiplied, for rock is never simply product. For many it is the staff of life, to be reinvented in ever varying guises, in eternal cycles of amateurism and professionalism and decadence.

Today, more time in rock's history has flowed since this Cambrian explosion than led up to it. In the big picture, rock has become hegemonic, a major component in the civilization it once challenged. Along the way, rock lost its political charge, mostly because its pleasures have insinuated themselves more and more into everyday life. I've found that my own politics have refocused similarly, from the critique of injustice in the world I grew up in, to the more personal realm of finding pleasures in a world spinning out of control. And rock & roll, and all that follows or precedes or reverberates from it, has been with me all the way. But the music alone doesn't fully satisfy. Einstein once wrote that "the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility." While it's not altogether clear that Einstein was right, the effort to comprehend is a challenge worthy of a lifetime and the task of sharing that understanding is a noble calling. Indeed, a rock & roll critic is something to be.