A few thoughts about rock criticism

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… 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.

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Felix Dennis, without whom — a requiem

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This just in: Felix Dennis has left the building, departed this plane of existence, passed away. Another man done gone, less than a year after Mick Farren split. (Felix and I both wrote introductions of sorts to Micky’s best-of collection Elvis Died For Somebody’s Sins But Not Mine.) You’ll be seeing summaries of his extraordinary life and career all over mainstream media any second now, but since I pretty much owe what I laughingly refer to as ‘my career’ to Felix, let’s just stick with the personal stuff …

I first met him in 1970 at Richard Neville’s basement at the preliminary editorial meeting for what eventually became the OZ Schoolkids Issue. As the magazine’s business manager and in-house ‘freak with a briefcase’, I was struck by the clash of his pinstripe suit with his Louis XIV hair and wildman beard … and his near-hysterical piratical guffaw.

He was both the most practical and the most hedonistic of the OZ triumvirate: simultaneously brusque and compassionate. When I decided to relocate to London on New Years Day of 1972, it was Felix who put me up, rent-free, in the spare room of his then dwelling at 44 Wandsworth Bridge Road, allowing me unlimited access to his fridge, his library and his record collection, and there I stayed until Felix moved out several months later. By then I was able to roll a decent spliff and I’ve still never flatshared with anyone who had so many girlfriends – or such noisy ones. All he asked in return was that I always made sure there was an untouched pint of milk in the fridge: he needed it for the ulcer he already had in his mid-20s.

Without OZ I might never have found a first home in print: without Felix’s generosity I’ve no idea how I’d have gained my first foothold in London. Many years later I worked for him again, at MacUser, and more recently he helped me out of a massive jam, even though we’d seen very little of each other for decades. ‘We’re not close friends,’ he explained, ‘but we’re old friends.’

He was booked to appear alongside R Crumb and former OZ lawyer Geoffrey Robertson at a panel about the OZ trial which I’ll be hosting on July 14 as part of The British Library’s Comics Unmasked season, but last week we heard that he was unwell and not able to appear. Guess he wasn’t kidding … Felix, if you changed your mind about doing the gig, just saying so would’ve been enough. I therefore intend to dedicate the event to him.

For now: in his honour — a poem. Hail and farewell, Felix …

We only meet at funerals
Fewer of us each time
More and more passengers disembark
As we approach the end of the line

Fewer and fewer chairs required
At each gathering of the clan
How long before we can count ourselves
On the fingers of one hand?

Some of us split long ago
Some of us hang on
Some keep an empty glass on the table
For those already gone

Some of us got famous
Some of us got rich
Some of us just got all fucked up
Ain’t that a bitch?

Some of us remember
When it wasn’t all just for show
Some of us still light a candle
For the dreams of long ago

Some left the party early
But no matter how many are dead
A spliff still burns in the ashtray
For revolutions in the head

CSM meets R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton live at the British Library’s Comics Unmasked!

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Charles Shaar Murray presents Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Fat Freddy’s Cat, the Oz Trial, Felix Dennis, Geoffrey Robertson and Deyan Sujic in July.

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it. Since I must have done something good in a previous life (or maybe even this one), I was invited by the curators of the British Library’s Comics Unmasked! season to host a pair of back-to-back panels on the evening of July 14. The second will be cool enough — a retrochatty thing on the OZ Obscenity Trial featuring Felix Dennis (among many other CV items, one of the three editors of the Schoolkids Issue which kicked off the whole hilarious mess), Geoffrey Robertson (distinguished civil rights lawyer who worked on the defence case as a junior to the late John Mortimer) and Deyan Sujic (now a frontline architecture guru but, back in 1970, the sole skinhead member of the OZ Schoolkids posse).I may also be contributing one or two of my own recollections.

The first, however, will be a rare joint public appearance (arf, etc) by the two most distinguished cartoonists to emerge from the San Francisco underground of the late ’60s: Gilbert Shelton (creator of The Fabulous Furry Freak brothers, Fat Freddy’s Cat and Wonder Warthog) and R. Crumb (creator of Mr Natural, Fritz The Cat and — ummmm — R. Crumb). The latter will, we hope, also be sticking around for the OZ panel since it was a culture-jam mash-up of one of his strips with the Daily Express’s Rupert Bear which caused so much of the agg and trubb.

My answer? You’ve got two guesses, and one of them doesn’t count. The words ‘pleasure’ and ‘privilege’ spring irresistibly to mind.

(Almost) everything you need to know about this fabulous cultural event can be found here. It’s sold out — quite rightly, too — but it may be worth checking with the organisers to see if there are any available returns you can snaffle.

In the meantime, I’ve been catching up with the latest collections of both Crumb and Shelton’s work from Knockabout Comics – needless to say, I salute their indefatigabilty – and urge y’all to do likewise.

Hope to see you there …

Plus I’m immensely flattered that, out of all the work by megadistinguished comix creators which could have been chosen to represent the 1988 Alan Moore-edited anti-Clause 28 comic AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), the one that the curators chose to display and to excerpt in the catalogue was the one I wrote (illustrated by Floyd Hughes), entitled Friday Night At The Boozer. All I can say is: my output as a comix writer is tiny … but cute.

Hup.

PS As an added tasty treat, I’ve commenced the reconstruction oof this site’s Comics section with a piece I wrote about Crumb some years back — find it here.