Far from celebrating rock and roll’s vaunted—and wholly artful—primitivism, these two new books are remarkable instead for the (largely unconscious) ease with which each celebrates the surprisingly conventional nature of rock-end-roll culture. Not that the guts have gone out’of the backbeat, mind you; I don’t mean for a moment to suggest, even sardonically, that a rhetoric of crisis or a lament for authenticity intrudes in either book. No, what links Tony Sanchez’s Up and Down With the Rolling Stones with Greil Marcus’s collection of original essays by 20 of the country’s best pop critics—and what separates both books from outmoded raps about rock’s ties to the ’60s and its precarious status in an age of conformity—is a sense of rock and roll and its allied technologies as regular, coherent, even lawful. A good thing, too, since today the music is in unprecedented health, and only a style of criticism that looks beyond the ideology of the Wasteland has any chance of apprehending rock as it moves into the 1980s.
Sanchez’s gonzo memoir of life with the Rolling Stones is a stone riot, a trifle lightweight at first glance, but ultimately riveting for anyone who loves rock and roll. Ornery reviewers may have a case when they complain, as some have, about Sanchez’s lack of attention to the Stones’s music (his memory of Brian Jones’s love for Elmore James early in the book is the only real exception). But what fascinates Sanchez is the same backstage life that fascinates any Stones fan; his book is a fiesta for rock-and-roll yentas.
A gofer for the Stones since their early days, Sanchez seems to have satisfied most of his ambitions through his intimacy with Keith, Mick, and, as he reminds us more than once, Marianne Faithfull; it’s a satisfaction that apparently survives the humiliating errands and other services he had to perform for Keith-steady Anita Pallenberg as well as the head Stones themselves. The suicide scandal in Anita’s bedroom last July had its plain roots in 12 years of cheap thrills that Sanchez helped orchestrate, and orchestrates again as he rewrites the past in the tranquility of post-addiction care.
Interestingly enough, however, Sanchez’s persona exudes an uncanny integrity throughout the decidedly foul proceedings and seems to owe its credibility, both for Sanchez and for us, to his early history and enduring self-image as a hard-boiled nightclub man. In fact, Sanchez’s style of identity is little more than a rock-and-roll variation on the professional journeyman we know from, say, Howard Hawks or Raymond Chandler. Such implicit mythologies inform Sanchez’s notion of himself from the start, and just as compellingly as the more central myth of the rock star proper informs the grander and more troubled characters of Jagger and the rest, not only from an outsider’s point of view, but even, one is forced to conclude, from within.
This is surely to romanticize Sanchez and the whole sleazy business of the Stones’s supposedly private lives. But romance, after all, is a precondition of the genre and should remind us that rock and roll’s very allure lies in the overt mythmaking that is essential to its speech. Hence Sanchez’s book turns on a joke that is precisely—and maybe not unwittingly—its point. For there is, after all, no “inside story” to speak of (despite the subtitle) since the “inside” is no more than the story of a story, just as regulated by manners and conventions as the music is. Does it have to be argued that the Stones have been fashioned by the same conventions that fashion their fans? Sanchez’s book is less the revelation of things hitherto unknown than it is the calculated filling in of particular details, names, and places in the mythic structure of Stone life as we already imagine it.
Like the music and the scene, rock criticism is a pensee sauvage, funky on the surface but girded underneath by ineluctable regularities. In fact, it’s even more disingenuous about its own powerful determinations than the music is, perhaps because its determinations are even more tangled. After all, the criticism, as everyone knows with varying degrees of pleasure, is drenched not only in the music and hip culture, but also in the academic languages that have trained most rock critics to one degree or another. The defensive custom that accompanies the training, however, is the obligatory put-down of analysis itself—a denigration that closes many of the essays in Greil Marcus’s Stranded collection, and turns out to be just as conventional as the intellection it (polemically) abjures.
One reason for the primitive pose, of course, is that it’s a strategy that allows rock criticism to rip off the vocabulary of high culture in the act of challenging it. In so doing, however, rock criticism also—and ironically—reproduces the very ideology of the high culture from which it supposedly flees. After all, the notion that the authority of rock and roll—or of literature, for that matter, in the high-culture version—issues from its privileged access to a plenitude of natural, spontaneous, quasi-divine energy ignores the real sources of its energy, which in both cases are social. This confusion persists despite rock criticism’s particular—and heavily compromised—mission to valorize the achievements of mass culture instead.
Of course, the separation of high and pop cultures is untenable in any case, since the domain of high culture is, in practice, no more elitist in its critical or creative procedures than rock and roll. What blinds us to the continuity is that high culture (like a good deal of rock criticism) customarily mystifies and idealizes the humble tinkerings of the poet, painter, or critic in order to keep his priesthood and its divinity somehow segregated from the mass, a project it pursued with the greatest (because overcompensatory) energy in its “modernist” moment.
Marcus more than grazed the problem of rock and roll ideology in his 1975 Mystery Train, and turns out to have focused his new book around similar concerns (how consciously at the outset it is hard to tell) by asking his writers to choose a single rock and roll LP for sustenance on the proverbial desert island. But as Marcus himself implies in his preface, the conceit is more interesting as a symptom than as a pure act of imagination perhaps because the resonant figure of exile that underlies it gives away the peculiar need the desert-island routine is designed to fill—the need to maintain rock culture as a graphic culture apart, and so endow it with a whole mythology of modernist isolation (remember Martin Decoud on his desert island in Nostromo?) that makes it not just adversary but also—and alas—solipsistic.
This is the usual contradiction, since the modernist and high culture stance of the exiled, isolated, privileged individual is especially incommensurate with the qualities of mass culture that rock criticism means to celebrate as a form. (Antagonism to the dominant culture has, of course, its political roots as well, although here, too, we’re thrown back on an ideological, hence rhetorical, paradox of “vanguardism” in the service of the mass—Marxism, too, as symptomatic modernism—as well as on a misreading of Anglo-American High Modernism in particular, in which technical revolution has been mistakenly supplemented in some quarters, e.g., Joni Mitchell, with an impossible political counterpart.)
In many ways, rock itself forgot all this in the ’60s, and then progressively recovered from the lapse as the ’70s proceeded. In the criticism, however, the split remains largely intact (as it were), a rifted enterprise whose contours emerge in Marcus’s title and persist throughout the book in a rather strict way, despite the apparent disarray created by his critics’ wide choice of eras and artists. (Bands and artists range, by the way, from early rock-and-roll groups like the Ronettes and the Five Royales to seminal p–ks like the Velvets, the New York Dolls, and the Ramones, with stops in between at Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and the Kinks.)
John Rockwell’s essay on Linda Ronstadt displays the kind of tension that gives almost all the essays their peculiar energy and shared ground; it oscillates violently between a profoundly technical and a profoundly personal assessment of Rondstadt’s singing. Now a musicologist, now just a pal, Rockwell even tends to rediscover the structure of his own argument in the structure of his subject—for, like his prose, Ronstadt’s music also “embraces strongly articulated alternatives.” The rhetoric that organizes the book is thus regular in its irregularity, the modernist appeal to personal authenticity and direct feeling alternating with a postmodern appeal to contingency, preconditions, context.
If M. Mark, for example; argues in her essay on Van Morrison that he sings “about the pursuit of direct emotional response” and about “recovering innocence,” she insists at the same time that he sings with a voice tutored in sources, burdened by forms. This latter quality would seem to deny Mark’s former contention, since a quest for immediacy is, strictly speaking, doomed in a world that is largely inherited. And yet the energy of Mark’s self-divided argument is never dissipated by the contradiction, even when she attempts to resolve the differences by claiming that Morrison does so himself. Indeed, the discovery of Morrison’s sources packs a relish all its own, especially when Mark cites “Mustang Sally” as the resolving text for the “huh’s” in Van’s phrasing. And just as in Rockwell’s essay, the split in Mark’s prose between a rhetoric of natural feeling and a rhetoric that acknowledges the pressures of craft and history is replicated in the split between images of ripe nature and images of (even hot) circuitry in Morrison’s own lyrics.
Simon Frith’s essay (the only one by a British critic) helps to focus and magnify the defining split or contradiction in Mark and Rockwell by identifying the central preoccupation of the Stones’ Beggars Banquet according to the customary terms. What Frith calls the Stones’ “acute, almost contemptuous grasp of their own paradoxes” is best expressed in the album’s title, which Frith reads as an oxymoron that poises isolation against community—natural self against society—only a little less exactly than Exile on Main Street will a few years later on.
Hence, too, the opposites that structure Jim Miller’s image of Phil Spector. Spector’s “aesthetic of excess,” Miller argues, allows us to “unpack… the litter of his imagination,” that grabbag of American odds and ends gathered all the way from Harlem to the Brill Building. But despite its public contents, the net effect of Spector’s art is “an obsessive—and unlikely—solipsism.” Miller’s definition of the thrill of rock and roll listening—“the first time, again”—dramatizes in a single phrase the impossibility of modernist immediacy in the face of repetitions, copies, imitations, all those manifest characteristics of pop culture that stand against the privileged individual and put him in question. Ariel Swartley even chooses a favorite deconstructive figure of speech (wittingly?) to describe the unevenness of these discordant mythologies as they appear in Bruce Springsteen, and so, provides us with an exact image for the rhetoric of rock criticism, too: “It’s not like the songs lay out in neatly knitted metaphors,” says Swartley. “One tug and they’re unravelled.”
Not everybody, of course, is so balanced or even in the oscillations between rhetorical alternatives. Paul Nelson oohs and aahs about Jackson Browne on the basis of some murky personal logic that doubles (and deserves) Browne’s own, while Grace Lichtenstein’s essay on the Eagles is almost entirely dependent on a notion of rock and roll as a record of one’s personal associations to particular songs and singers. Langdon Winner, by contrast, leans the other way in a resolute attempt to find music that is utterly devoid of public or social references (his choice of artist, fittingly enough, is the wackoid Captain Beefheart), whose only real referents are other texts. Although a modernist/isolationist wish-fulfillment to begin with, Winner’s discussion of Beefheart’s desire “to disconnect and reorder things” actually magnifies rock and roll’s thoroughly public musical heritage—as well as its “inherited store of fantasies” that together cancel any possibility of “authentic voice.”
Ellen Willis’s essay on Lou Reed is more bifurcated than either Rockwell’s or Miller’s. Reed, says Willis, once again (re)discovering the ideology of rock criticism in its subject, embodies “a fateful connection between two seemingly disparate ideas—the ‘rock-and-roller as self-conscious aesthete and the rock-and-roller as self-conscious punk.” By implication magnifying the disparity already at work between high culture solipsism and mass culture sociability, Reed’s “use of a mass art form,” as Willis puts it, “to express his aesthetic and social alienation” brings the paradox to a painful head.
But while Willis seems willing to live with the contradictory ideal of the aesthete-punk, she suddenly decides that the uneven pose is “a metaphor for transcendence”—as though there really were a telos or end to interpretation that would resolve, unify, centralize Reed’s requisite oppositions after all. Indeed, in an astonishing lapse into existential moralizing, Willis touts Reed’s “nakedness” and the “glimmer of redemption” it provides, even though both contradict her earlier, ironic notion of Reed’s “identity” as an odd and uneasy ensemble of genuinely different parts—a set of differences that are definitive rather than dialectical.
It is above all the Ramones who have opened up the post-modern area of knowledge that the music itself now occupies, and Tom Carson maps the terrain with considerable lucidity in his essay on the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia: “More than any other band, they had defined the music in its purest terms: a return to the basics which was both deliberately primitive and revisionist at the same time, a musical and lyrical bluntness of approach which concealed a wealth of complex, disengaging ironies underneath. It was zero-based rock ‘n roll, and the conquest was so streamlined that the smallest shifts in nuance, when they came, had enormous implicit resonance.”
Primitive and revisionist, blunt and complex at the same time, the Ramones themselves deploy the opposed rhetorical styles of modernist immediacy and post-modernist contextuality at work in our critics, although they deploy them not as an expressive conflict but as a defining tension. “The Ramones lived out that double-edged vision in all sorts of ways,” says Carson. “They were raised on the pop-culture religion; they believed in the Top 40 as the melting pot of the teenage American dream, where clichés and junkiness and triviality take on the epic sweep of a myth and the depth of a common unconscious. But they themselves were minority artists, working far outside the mainstream, and that, paradoxically, gave them the freedom to live out everyone’s private fantasy that the Top 40 really told the truth, instead of being the shoddy compromise it always actually was.”
Though there is some lingering nostalgia here for the “actual” (Willis’s “nakedness,” Mark’s “direct emotional response”), the radical implication is that “the Top 40 really told the truth” because its “myth” is in fact an example of what really structures our “common unconscious”—not a Jungian bed of instinctual representations but a Lacanian one of kinship laws, table manners, blues manners, and so on. Cultural myths even provide us with our desires, since desire is no longer to be understood as a natural, personal eruption, but as something articulated by an “unconscious” that is ideological rather than libidinal or even strictly individual.
Thus the importance of the trashy pop culture that uptown highbrows consider irrelevant, even as they, too, watch the tube and read The Village Voice: “One of the chief delights of rock ‘n roll,” says Carson, “is that it’s trash music for a trash culture; when Chuck Berry wrote down his version of the American dream, it wasn’t any chaste pastoral grandeur he chose to mythologize, but jukeboxes, and hamburgers and neon,” The Ramones, in short, “had remembered trash.”
And so the most shocking result of all: Joey Ramone’s “insistence”—on the level of principle—“on keeping the ‘I’ in his vocals separate from himself.” Why? Not because he’s alienated or because he’s unhappy with the family fiction, Carson argues, but because the very nature of subjectivity obliges us to construct ourselves out of the public images and rhetoric scattered all around us by the culture at large. Joey is not the “I” who sings; he renounces the old idealization of personality as a natural whole, as well as the notion that a singer expresses himself when he sings. His art by no means enacts a drama of alienation or a lament of a self for its self—that would make the effect tragic, or at least lugubrious, but it’s neither. Instead, says Carson, the Ramones are “comically exultant,” affirming life by embracing it as we (unconsciously) know it, accepting its terms (despite Carson’s own existential and anti-intellectual swerve in his closing paragraph), and finding a new style of joy in the neon world of trash that turns out to be a treasure-trove of American industry.
The volume’s richest and most controlled essay, predictably enough, belongs to Robert Christgau, self-proclaimed “dean of American rock criticism” just because nobody else bothered to say so. Christgau’s profound self-consciousness as a writer keeps him singularly free of the tangled assumptions that characterize all the other essays, even Carson’s in its final paragraph, and probably accounts for his ability to read p–k earlier and in far greater detail than anyone else. The choice of the New York Dolls as his subject is not, of course, just an honest one (it’s arguably more discerning, too, than other genealogies of the New Wave), but an expression of the classic requirement of the strong critic to choose texts that yield readily to his power.
Christgau’s wit provides a key to one of his characteristic strategies as a critic, that of discovering technique in a subject where he knows there is none. Though this is usually the hidden procedure of rock criticism, Christgau is bold enough to use it overtly to make sense of the otherwise senseless Dolls:
“They refused to pay their dues,” writes the deadpan critic of the Dolls’ atrocious musicianship. “So we had to pay instead.” So, too, guitarist Johnny Thunders’s “mistakes are indistinguishable from his inspirations,”—a piece of rhetoric by which Christgau silently transfers the art not just of discrimination but of order away from the band and onto himself. The strategy even has regular variations: witness drummer Tommy Ramone, for example, “who went so minimal that he made Charlie Watts sound like Elvin Jones”—a joke that ends up securing what this minimalism sounds like by means of a maximum metaphor that fills the mind with the very things the metaphor intends to cast away.
The Christgavian project is not, however, solipsistic, despite the Romantic mechanism that sustains its durable persona. Christgau gains more than the usual critical triumph because he appropriates not just the artifact to his vision, but the whole world around it. And though that may seem just another victory for Romantic personality, its effect is precisely the reverse. For the payoff is that Christgau can thereby situate the privileged autonomy of both the rock-and-roll band and the writer within the cobweb of allusions and presuppositions that determine and define them both. Thus perceiving and evaluating music or writing requires an appeal to context, to all the stuff the music—and the prose—refers to (even when it represses certain referents) in order to be itself.
Christgau calls this result a “recontextualizing-effect,” and it is an effect his own prose closely shares with the New Wave bands he has championed. For like them, Christgau is a “practical technician” whose technique is also in the service of fashioning a style of personal identity. But like the Dolls and the p–k bands in their wake, Christgau’s own literary personality is not a natural or privileged unity that expresses itself in writing, but a composite fiction won in a vortex of inherited languages.
That Christgau alone is in resolute possession of the paradoxes that define the critic and his subject (he deploys them, not the other way around) is not surprising, since rock criticism as we know it today is largely Christgau’s invention, (early originating compatriots like Richard Goldstein and even R. Meltzer have not sustained their own rock-and-roll enterprises in quite the same way). Rock criticism really does comprise a Christgavian academy-in-exile, not just because so many of its practitioners have put their training to new uses, but because they have forged in the process, and under the dean’s tutelage, a special brand of American writing stuffed with more traditions than you can count, and stitched up in a dense, nervy, and image-laden prose that virtually all Marcus’s writers share. (The knowing exception is Ed Ward, who intentionally waxes novelistic in a terrific dramatization, complete with flashbacks, of the last days of the Five Royales.) In a real sense, these essays have been written by a kind of common (un)consciousness whose nearest origin is Christgau himself.
Marcus’s volume is therefore symptomatic not just because it identifies through its inaugurating conceit and bifurcated practice a paradox central to the rhetoric of all contemporary criticism, but because it represents, from a practical point of view, a crisis of sorts after all—not in the music or the culture, of course, but in their continuing interpretation. If Christgau and Carson understand the shifts in approach required for the 1980s, many of the volume’s writers do not. Rock and roll has changed from a music centered securely in a handful of father figures in the ’50s and ’60s (though that is a myth, too) to one whose unique performers today are unique only by virtue of their uncanny derivations (Bryan Ferry, Blondie, the Ramones, Rockpile). Indeed, the New Wave is largely to be defined by its frank duplication and recombination of inherited sounds and images, rather than by any attempt to be wholly original.
It is this decentered, anti-Oedipal, disseminated aspect of contemporary rock and roll that Marcus may be seeking to repress in his choice of an organizing notion. “Stranded” implies homecoming, as Marcus avows, and so embodies the wish upon which all modernist ideology is erected—the wish to return to a center already stipulated by one’s exile from it. The wish to choose favorite single albums seems in fact to express with surpassing nostalgia a lament for the passing of an era (and its reconstitution as such in memory) in which rock and roll really was anchored in undeniable superstars and undeniable record classics. That’s no longer true, whether it once was or not, and so Marcus, with more than just a wishful intent, uses a center that, as he and his writers well know, cannot hold.
Marcus and Sanchez have in fact begun the task of pointing us toward the ’80s by providing a relaxed and stable sensation of rock-and-roll history and its context as monumental and continuous, its structure as orderly and susceptible to overinterpretation as the history of poetry, painting, or classical music. Thus Marcus the discographer, however humorously, “take[s] responsibility for the tradition,” as he puts it in his epilogue, and lists—with commentaries all the more Talmudic in their contrast to the rock-and-roll style in which they’re written—the platters that constitute the canon of rock and roll. Indeed, the very form of Marcus’s catalogue reconstitutes the book’s organizing options all over again—a disconnected series of Eliotic fragments on the one hand, some pages from the Borgesian Library on the other. Even more, the catalogue’s necessary (and doubtless repressed) working model is nothing less than Christgau’s Consumer Guide.
With all this history pouring in, the volume’s initiating conceit of being “stranded” grows more and more implausible, although that may very well be its point. After all, a bikini beach party is a lot more fun than sitting around alone.
Village Voice, January 21, 1980
Reprinted with the writer’s permission; also available at Perry Meisel: A Critic’s Archive