Undercover: Making Nothing Out of Something (01/11/79)

David Leaf’s The Beach Boys and the California Myth (Grosset & Dunlap, 192 pp., $795 paperback) and Alan Rinzler’s Bob Dylan: The Illustrated Record (Harmony, 120 pp., $8.95 paperback) are examples of a new publisher’s staple: the rock nonbook. Such artifacts share many qualities. They are expensive, overwhelmingly illus­trated, less written than produced; they touch all bases of a performer’s career, usually reducing that career and its public impact to mere biography, without demanding anything from the reader. They suggest a combination of a fan’s enthusiasm and serious analysis, clearly a good thing, and generally counterfeit both out of venality or incompetence. A deluge of photos replaces ideas; crazy-quilt layouts disguise the incoherence of the texts. The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan score on all counts.

Leaf’s book, a moony account of the messy history of Brian Wil­son (theme: Genius Is Pain), is the bigger cheat, because the “California Myth” part of the title implies a subject somewhat larger than Brian Wilson’s thirteen-year failure to make a better record than “I Get Around.” Well, forget it. Leaf doesn’t understand that to white, middle-class Californians, “Fun, Fun, Fun” was not only a “myth” but ordinary life as well; that means his skimpy version of the “myth” is merely an Easterner’s conceit.

Like the Beach Boys’ career since the mid-Sixties, the book is earnest but shapeless–tiresome. The writing ranges from adequate to insultingly bad: facts, most of them familiar from other sources, are repeated over and over.

There is a need for a book about California rock: the story that begins in the late Forties and early Fifties, with Johnny Otis and moves through the Penguins and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jan and Dean to the Beach Boys and Phil Spector, takes in Richard Berry, the Coasters, and follows the trail through to Frank Zappa, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac and Warren Zevon. That’s a mystery: what was it all about? Is it a single story? The problem with the Beach Boys may be that, considered within the context of themselves, they don’t deserve a book–or can’t support one. Brian Wilson’s genius, if one must use the word, wasn’t a great deal different from Leiber and Stoller’s; it had to do with an excitement with the details of pop life, with the thrill of getting it right, catching a moment in time and convincing those who were living it out that they were privileged, blessed, lucky to hear their lives redeemed on the radio. Brian Wilson’s genius had much more to do with the opening lines of “Be True to Your School” than with anything about “Surf’s Up;’ but certainly no one willing to devote himself to a whole book on the Beach Boys would ever understand that.

Bob Dylan follows the “Illustrated Record” format that has already resulted in commercially successful books on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones: biography-through-records, with chapters headed on full-page reproductions of LP covers and made up of track-by-track reviews with sidebar copy filling in the historical blanks. What with Anthony Scaduto’s solid biography, Craig McGregor’s critical anthology (both tided Bob Dylan), and Michael Gray’s first-rate study, Song and Dance Man, Rinzler’s book can be justified only on two grounds: it will probably sell, and it is up-to-date.

Rinzler tries to write like a man obsessed with Dylan, but the effect is always forced; he tries to be “official,” never to really criticize, and so the result is bland. His writing is alternately inflated and tired, the rhythm of a man who knows he has nothing new to say: the only connecting line is change, which by now is the oldest line on Dylan of all, and close to the most meaningless. Dylan’s assault on the world–on life–is reduced to biography. In this context–no different from Leaf’s, really–Street-Legal is as vital as Highway 61 Revisited; that Dylan made them both is all the justification, all the content, they need. The Illustrated Record is well printed, with lots of interesting photos, quite accurate factually and rather than enriching Dylan’s career, it impoverishes it.

The idea that the work of a performer is essentially a statement of autobiography is a very Seventies notion. In the Sixties, when the rock & roll that is most written about was made, things weren’t understood that way. One looked to a new Beach Boys record to find out what was hip, and one looked to a new Dylan record to catch a new version of reality. What links rock’s nonbooks is the refusal or the inability of their authors to think, and that means those who read them may well lose the sense that rock & roll exists in and acts on the world–like any other art. These books reduce Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan to that age-old musical question–Who cares? They shrink the context, just as good rock criticism always broadened it, brought you into situations you never knew existed, and made songs you thought were nice seem like matters of life and death. Using that last phrase in connection with the books Leaf and Rinzler have come up with, I feel silly.


Rolling Stone, January 11, 1979


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