Edited by Greil Marcus, a most influential rock scholar, this book is more about rock criticism than rock history. A collection of twenty essays sandwiched between Marcus’ introduction and epilogue, it’s structured by a simple ploy: ask 20 writers what rock ‘n’ roll record they’d take to a desert island. Studying their responses to this ancient dilemma, the reader is supposed to make the crossing from island-to-island, perhaps gaining insights into the lifelong dialogue between artists and their fans. Somehow, by exploring the writers’ various exegeses, one is expected to become involved in reuniting the fragmental spirit of contemporary rock obsessiveness.
As “the effort to make that crossing,”Stranded is partially a failure; it rarely captures a sense of rock ‘n’ roll’s historical continuity or its magic or its encompassing, timeless embrace. Instead, the essays, read as a whole, undermine the book’s admirable intentions—they reinforce, almost justify, the insularity of rock’s present audience.
Yet it is not the records the writers choose (although these are embarrassing enough—few select an album released before 1970, nobody selects a 45) which create the problem; one can always allow for individual aesthetics. Rather, it’s the majority of the writers’ approach to Marcus’ setup; for, in general, they confront the question in the manner of Rousseau instead of Robinson Crusoe. In short, they avoid the issue, supplanting thought with personal confessions and elaborate fantasies that only their friends or psychiatrists would care to read.
A few of the writers get away with it because that’s the trademark of their style. In the book’s prologue, “The Sea’s Endless, Awful Rhythm & Me Without Even a Dirty Picture,” Nick Tosches cleverly sidesteps the whole problem with a humorous wink. Choosing Sticky Fingers, he writes: “There is something about the dullness of my choice that bothers me.” Tosches also deserves credit for composing the funniest line in the entire collection, oddly enough, the first sentence of his chapter—“Call me Gilligan.”
Lester Bangs, of course, writing in his usual confessional style, makes Astral Weeks seem infinitely richer than perhaps it really is (which, incidentally, is the stunt any great critic should be able to perform). Like Goethe’s Werther, Bang weeps a thousand tears right along with Van the Man, experiencing Morrison’s masterpiece as if it were the ultimate expression of human suffering.
Certainly there are writers in Stranded who do take a strict, utilitarian approach. Of these, only a few offer enlightening interpretations—Jim Miller on the Ronettes, Jay Cocks on Huey “Piano” Smith, Joe McEwen on Little Willie John, and Robert Christgau on the New York Dolls.
However, there are two essays employing the Crusoe methodology that remain virtually unreadable, aiming too high by stooping so low that one wants to crawl under a jellyfish out of mortification for the authors. John Rockwell’s 30-page defense of Linda Ronstadt’s Living in the U.S.A. is pompous, heavy-handed, and overblown; he interprets Ronstadt’s singing style largely in the terminology of classical music. Surely he could not have written this sentence with a straight face: “Any consideration of Linda Ronstadt has to start with her voice.”
Along similar lines of this excessiveness, Dave Marsh concocts a silly fantasy about an imaginary album filled solely with songs conducive to masturbation, Onan’s Greatest Hits (Wanker 0000). His “analysis” may seem cute to somebody under twenty-years-old, but, compared to his Stranded companions, Marsh comes off like an acne-infected Dennis the Menace.
Despite its faults, Stranded is worth buying if only for two reasons. One is Langdon Winner’s brilliant scrutinization of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, a structural review of a work so awesome that it practically invents its own language. Unlike the other critics in Stranded, Winner understands the dilemma perfectly: that, being isolated forever from one’s former culture, one would want to play an extremely complex record (the aural equivalent of Finnegans Wake), one that creates alternate structures of perceptions and beliefs requiring a lifetime of listenings.
The other is Greil Marcus’s “Treasure Island” chapter which concludes the book. In contrast to the other Crusoes who share his book, Marcus avoids the issue by assuming responsibility for the rock ‘n’ roll tradition; in short, his island is a well-stocked library of records. He cheats. But because he cheats, Stranded, overall, becomes a rewarding collection of insights. Marcus simply lists every record in his “stranded” library, supplying comments where he feels necessary. In this way, the historical continuity, even the magic, of rock ‘n’ roll is bestowed upon a text sorely lacking a passion for traditionalism.
As it should, the book ends on a warm note. The last record in Marcus’s library is “Close the Book” by the Zurvans on End (release date unknown). It’s a good joke, and one worth remembering—indeed, close the book; records, ultimately, speak for themselves.
Creem, April 1980
Reprinted with the writer’s permission.
More music criticism by Robot A. (/Robert) Hull can be found at Rock’s Backpages.