In his introduction Landau introduces himself, talks about his changing (and lessening) commitment to music and his approach to writing about it, which he now sees in terms of auteur theory: find the author, the author’s vision, locate the work in the context of his previous work, try to understand what can, and what should, follow. Landau has always concentrated more on formal musical questions than have, say, Lester Bangs or Bob Christgau, and it seems this has hardened to the point where the press release accompanying the book can say, “Landau writes about rock as art.” This is hardly an illegitimate approach, since it tends to limit, and clarify, the subject matter. On the other hand, it leads straight to the museums, and one of the pieces included here, “Rock and Art,” from 1968, sums up a lot of the reasons why Landau’s current conception of what he is doing may ultimately raise false questions, as well as useful ones. At any rate, it seems to me that it’s when Landau does move outside strictly musical discussion, and attempts to make some sense out of music and its political or social context, that he has most to say. He did this well in his piece on Beggars’ Banquet (not included here–he seems to have intentionally omitted most of his stuff that was used for the Rolling Stone Record Review book, and dropped his excellent piece on Motown, “A Whiter Shade of Black,” in favor of a later, and I think much weaker article from Rolling Stone; I also would have liked to see his piece on Happy Jack, for that matter…) and perhaps best of all in his long article on Dylan, “John Wesley Harding.” I can reduce it to one sentence: “Dylan has felt the war, and there is an awareness of it contained within the mood of the album as a whole.” This strikes me as perhaps the most intelligent thing anyone has said about John Wesley Harding; certainly, it opens up the album and makes sense out of it.
Other pieces included here that demonstrate how far Landau can go when he oversteps what I think he takes to be his boundaries are a brilliant tribute to Elvis Presley, a strong and intelligent piece on Janis Joplin’s death, and an article on the Ali-Frazier fight that says at least as much and probably more about what was going on there as the dozens of articles that flooded the press at the time.
Landau has always cared more for black rock and roll than most rock critics, and certainly thought about it more than anyone outside of Peter Guralnick, and articles on Redding, Picket, Motown and Sly give this book a balance that others have lacked.
Landau is no stylist; he writes clearly, he can get across his emotions without wearing his heart on his sleeve, though one thing his writing lacks that hurts is an ability to bring humor into it. Still, I think of this book and a similar collection Richard Goldstein put out a year or so ago. Goldstein’s collection of his columns was dull, dead, cute, over-written and well-nigh unreadable. This book is intelligent, clear, interesting, easy to read, and it can make you think. It’s not the best book on rock and roll–Nik Cohn still rules the waves as far as I’m concerned–but it’s a good one, and may open the way for collections by other critics who deserve some time between covers, such as Lester Bangs, Bob Christgau, Dave Marsh, and–if he would write a bit more–Tom Smucker. Not to mention…
Creem, October 1972