A few thoughts about rock criticism

charlesshaarmurray

… written in the early 1990s under circumstances I can no longer recall (hence the references to Guns ‘N Roses and Ice-T — then cutting-edge but now Old Folks Music and barely familiar to anyone under the age of 35 — and Frank Zappa as a living person existing in the present tense).*  Nevertheless, I still stand by it, and I still tell my Hothouse Project students much of this stuff today — alongside, of course, much more.

Goes something like THIS:

Notes On Dancing About Architecture

1. It may or may not have been Frank Zappa who dismissed rock criticism by suggesting that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ (perhaps it was Prince Charles, who himself has had many and merry a dance about architecture); but it was certainly Zappa who claimed that rock journalism is ‘people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.’ Zappa himself talks better than most rock musicians; he’s certainly been interviewed by many people (some of whom can actually write), and presumably the only rock fans whom he thinks can read are those who buy his own records; but he undoubtedly represents the views of a great many musicians. Any practicing rockcrit can quote examples of musicians who considered writers to be persons of vast acuity, immense musical knowledge and almost terrifying personal integrity as long as those writers were publishing favourable judgements on the recorded products in question. As soon as the critic registers a negative viewpoint on the artist’s work, (s)he is magically transformed into a deaf, ignorant reptile with no other agenda than the ruthless destruction of their betters. Certainly, there is considerable confusion about exactly what rock criticism is; and the first step to resolving that confusion is to discuss two of the things it isn’t.

2. The first thing that rock criticism isn’t is reviewing (except when Robert Christgau does it). Reviewing is a simple advisory service for consumers; letting them know what records are in the stores (or which tours are about to pass through which localities), and making recommendations as to which artefacts represent a sensible use of the rocking-dollar portion of the reader’s disposable income. The reviewer thus becomes a knowledgeable head waiter, prepared to tell the prospective diner what’s nice today – and what’s ‘off.’ This presupposes that the reviewer is either able to conceal their idiosycrasies and prejudices to a sufficient extent to serve as a neutral conduit for information, or else to make said quirks sufficiently obvious for the reader to make his/her consumption decisions whether in agreement with the reviewer or not.

3. The second thing that rock criticism isn’t is reportage. Description, colour, you-are-there: this is all good stuff, and it’s something that anybody who calls themself a writer – of any description – should be able to do. A sharp eye and ear for character, setting and nuance never did anybody any harm; at its best this kind of stuff is the sort of sketch-writing on which Charles Dickens honed his skills; at its worst it’s the kind of bland celebrity journalism which currently dominates all cultural discourse. The demand thus placed on the artist is to become a ‘character’: to have interesting drug habits, diet tips, tattoos and working methods, or to cultivate controversial opinions, beat up photographers and undress in public.

4. None of the above should imply that there is anything negligible about being a competent, knowledgeable reviewer, sympathetic (and/or confrontational) interviewer or snappy, perceptive descriptive writer. No-one who has not cultivated these skills is liable to last very long as a cultural journalist, unless they are appallingly well-connected within their chosen industry and are in a position to deliver ‘exclusives’ on a regular basis. (As a rule of thumb, anybody whose by-line appears regularly in important periodicals on stories about major entertainers despite style-free prose and inconvenience-free questioning probably falls into this category.) Nevertheless, this isn’t criticism.

5. So, what is? Criticism implies perspective: it means having a clear and precise vision (and not just an additood, dooooood) of where the work of the artist under discussion at any given moment fits into the history and current state of the art-form, how that art-form fits into the general state of popular culture, and what popular culture itself represents in view of the social and political realities of the time. A new record by Ice-T or Guns N’ Roses or anybody else is, to the reviewer, a state-of-the-art example of rap, hard-rock or whatever; and it may or may not be better or worse consumer-value than the last record by that artist or the latest by a comparable artist whose work could be considered better. To the celeb-journo, Ice-T and Axl Rose are controversial public figures guaranteed to toss out a few good quotes which can be pulled out of the feature and splashed acoss the page in 72-point type. To the critic, Axl and Ice-T may be exemplars of a crisis in masculinity among insecure adolescents; they may be symptoms of a decline in popular culture since the days of Sly Stone or Jim Morrison; they could be the result of a moral failure on the part of ‘responsible’ rockers since they both use the N-word about blacks and the B-word about women; they could be great popular entertainers who articulate the needs and concerns of the communities who support their work; one of them could be a brainless thug while the other is a great poet … and so on.

6. It doesn’t matter what the ‘line’ of any individual critic might be as long as there is one. What matters is the quality of the argument, and the resources that the critic brings to bear to back it up. While the reviewer counsels your cultural investments on a bang-for-the-buck basis and the celeb-journo describes the public (or private, or second-level-public disguised as ‘private’) face of a phenomenon, the critic does all of that … and then more.

7. On a good day, anyway.

* My friend Dave Rimmer reminds me, “I commissioned that piece for the Berlin Independence Days catalogue 1992. As part of the deal you were also on a panel with Swells, Chris Bohn, Diedrich Diedrichson and others I can’t recall, moderated by moi.”

Aha — it’s all coming back to me now …

 

 

Read more about Charles Shaar Murray’s Hothouse Project “Journalism as Craft and Art” writing course.

Crumb, Shelton & Me: The Fabulous Furry Comix Brothers

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Charles Shaar Murray interviews Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton at the British Library Comics Unmasked event. Plus Oz trial panel discussion.

Into the life of an impecunious freelance kulchah pundit occasionally comes a proverbial Dream Gig. Being invited by the honchos of the British Library’s Comics Unmasked season to host and chair a panel with the two greatest figures of First Wave Underground Comix — namely R(obert) Crumb and Gilbert Shelton was one such. I mean, I’ve adored and admired the work of both these guys since my teens, and here was an opportunity not only to meet them but to chat with them before a sold-out audience and attempt to provide the specks of grit around which the creators of Mr Natural and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers could spin their respective verbal pearls.

With incomparable restraint and iron determination, I managed to restrain myself from lapsing into Fanboy Babble Mode for the first hour of the event during which i cajoled the legends into discussing their experiences in late ’60s West Coast kountah-kulchah, the effects of pyschedelics on them and their work, their earliest cartooning influences, their differing creative processes and other way-fascinating stuff. We were then joined for a second panel concerning the OZ Schoolkids Issue and the resulting legal shenanigans by Geoffrey Robertson QC, Dick Pountain (a veteran underground press hand deputising for our old friend Felix Dennis, who’d gone to somewhat drastic lengths for copping out on the panel) and my fellow ex-OZ schoolkid, architecture guru Deyan Sujic. I was only slightly distracted by a guy in the audience who could have won an Alan Moore Lookalike Contest even if Alan Moore himself had been participating.

The evening concluded with a banquetty thing at the Groucho Club (not one of my regular haunts, I must confess) where we were joined by Terry Gilliam (who’d worked alongside our two heroes in New York at Harvey Kurtzman’s HELP! magazine during the early ’60s) and where I discovered, much to my gleeful surprise, that a Seriously Famous Movie Star is a major fan of my Jimi Hendrix book, Crosstown Traffic.

So what were they like? Even cooler than I’d hoped. Shelton is a laid-back, dry-witted senior hippie and Crumb presents an elegantly dapper and sardonic figure bearing only a passing resemblance to the frazzled misanthrope of his on-the-page self. Video clippage is imminent.

Nobody seemed to have any bloody dope; everybody’s so damn respectable nowadays … but everything else one could have desired was present and more than correct. They even tell me I’m getting paid, too … miracolo!

Watch a video of the OZ Schoolkids Issue obscenity trial debate at Comics Unmasked.

Pix: Mr Crumb, Mr Me and Mr Shelton by Ander McIntyre; Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Anna Chen by Lora Fountain.

Anna-AlineCrumb-med copy

Ramones: 1-2-3-4 and then there were none.

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Tommy Ramone died on Friday, but Tommy Erdelyi never even wanted to be a Ramone in the first place. When his friends Douglas Colvin, Jeffrey Hyman and John Cummings attempted to start a band, Hungarian-born Tomas volunteered to help out as manager, songwriting contributor and — if they ever got far enough up the rock and roll tree to make a record — producer. John Cummings played guitar. Douglas Colvin sang lead and played bass. Jeffrey Hyman played drums. Two problems soon became apparent. Douglas couldn’t sing and play bass at the same time, and Jeffrey Hyman could barely play drums at all. Solution: Jeffrey became the lead singer, which created a new problem: now they didn’t have a drummer. Auditions were held and various drummers showed up, but none of them played the way the band wanted their drummer to play. Tommy wasn’t even a drummer at all — his instrument was guitar — but he would attempt to demonstrate what was required.

Eventually the penny dropped. Pretty much by accident, Tommy became the drummer for what was about to transform into The Ramones, one of the most complete and perfect rock bands what ever was. John Cummings became Johnny Ramone, Douglas Colvin became Dee Dee Ramone, Jeffrey Hyman became Joey Ramone and Tomas Ederlyi became Tommy Ramone. ‘Paul Ramon’ had been Paul McCartney’s hotel alias during The Beatles’ touring days, and it was Johnny’s theory that it would make it easier for people to remember who they were if they all had the same surname. From then on they were Da Brudders! As far as I’m aware, I was the first UK-based rock journo to see The Ramones. I caught them playing a showcase in their rehearsal room in the autumn of 1975: admission was ‘free’, but a donation of $3 was requested and payment thereof entitled you to more or less unlimited beer.

They played most of what was about to become their first album to an audience about 25 people, at least half of whom were photographers. Their set may have taken less than half an hour, but it was half an hour of pure rock and roll bliss. Goofy, ingenuous, mean, nasty, sweet, sentimental, loud as fuck, cartoon fun and utterly enchanting. I couldn’t wait for London to hear them.

Less than a year later, London did. The rest is, as they say, history … and one of my fondest rock memories was the 1977-8 New Years Eve Show preserved on It’s Alive!

Tommy? Let’s put it this way: he was the most approachable of them all and had the most highly developed interpersonal skills of any of the original four (which, frankly, isn’t saying much), and he wrote some of their very best early songs. He was always a backroom guy at heart: he didn’t like touring and he didn’t much like playing the drums, either. After their third album, he was replaced by former Voidoid Marc Bell who, needless to say, became Marky Ramone and who, despite being a Proper Drummer with jazz chops and everything, managed to deliver Ramonic drumming just fine.

Just the other week, after almost four decades, that first Ramones album finally accumulated enough sales to go gold. Tommy was the Last Original Ramone Standing, and he just about hung in there long enough to claim his gold.

‘To Ramone’ was always a verb … but now it’s in the past tense. Da Brudders are gone, but the noise lives on.

Tell ‘em, Lemmy:

CSM’s Choice: Cadillac Records, a Game of Chess – review

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Charles Shaar Murray reviews
CADILLAC RECORDS (2008)

Written and directed by Darnell Johnson
Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Beyonce Knowles (also executive producer)
Sony DVD

The crucial clue is right up front in Darnell Johnson’s cinematic riff on the legend of Chess Records, the label which recorded the music which defined Chicago blues in the 1950s: a card telling us that it’s ‘based on a true story.’ Key-word: BASED. Cadillac Records is emphatically not a historically-accurate drama-doc: it’s a Hollywood fantasia which may indeed be set in dusty Mississippi and grimy South Side Chicago, but which actually takes place in a parallel universe where important characters either don’t exist or fulfil roles often markedly different from the ones they played in our world.

In other words: the less purist-picky you are about yer actual factage, the better a time you’ll have. Johnson has taken hammer and chisel to a vast, craggy lump of cultural history and carved from it a more-or-less comprehensible slice of movie story-telling. Musical director Steve Jordan supplies uncanny recreations of the epochal original recordings — men of the match: former fabulous Thunderbird Kim Wilson for his scarily accurate evocation of loose-cannon harp genius Little Walter’s harmonica work, and Howlin’ Wolf’s late guitarist Hubert Sumlin for his glorious resurrection of the riffs of his younger self. Art-directed to the back teeth, it’s frankly as gorgeous to look at as it is to listen to. Too gorgeous, if anything: label founder Leonard Chess was a stocky, stubby, cigar-chomping sweathog rather than the lean, sensitive, liquid-eyed dreamboat portrayed here by Adrien Brody. And, while Beyonce Knowles — without whose major crowd-pulling prowess (plus her financial commitment as executive producer), the movie probably would never even have gotten made — delivers an admirably gutsy, committed performance as the label’s leading lady Etta James, she’s at least four times better-looking than the chubby, moon-faced real thing and sings about a quarter as well.

So the story simplifies out into the tale of how the trajectory of vernacular music was changed by the team-up of two ambitious young men: a Polish-Jewish would-be entrepreneur (Brody’s Len Chess, of course) and a talented Delta sharecropper/musician who join forces in the late 1940s. Jeffrey Wright (recognisable to many as Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig 007 movies) is efficient and effective as Muddy Waters despite rarely evoking the full majesty of the Big Mud’s gravitas and charisma. If they’re the daddies, they have troubled kids (and their Daddy Issues) to deal with: Knowles’ insecure, addiction-prone Etta James and Columbus Short’s febrile evocation of the gradually disintegrating Little Walter. Cedric The Entertainer is massively stolid as bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon (though his character has far less influence on the Chess story than his real-life counterpart did); Mos Def does a lovely turn as Chuck Berry, whose verging-on-rockabilly R&B/country fusion breaks the label through to white kids; and Eamonn Walker comes within a nose-hair of stealing the whole movie with his gravel-voiced, gimlet-eyed Howlin’ Wolf, powerful and commanding enough to credibly challenge Muddy’s Godfather status.

The title, by the way, derives from Chess’s habit of buying his stars flash Cadillacs (and bunging them the odd wedge of cash) as opposed to paying proper royalties. The label’s formal accounting veered between dodgy and non-existent: that much, at least, is accurate. To enumerate the outrageous liberties (of both omission and commission) which Johnson’s screenplay takes with historical verity would have us all here for most of the night. Suffice it to say that, if appreciated for what it is rather what it isn’t, Cadillac Records is Big Fun: a failure, (not least because of its absurdly melodramatic daytime-TV climax) but an honourable and enjoyable one nonetheless.

Have moicy!


3/5