Kill Your Idols

A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics



Foreword: Canon? We Don’t Need No Steenkin’ Canon!

By Jim DeRogatis


Twenty-five years ago, Greil Marcus, the self-appointed Dean of the Rock-Critic Academy (West Coast), signed off on the editor’s note that opened the first edition of Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf. That anthology rounded up twenty members of the pioneering first generation of rock critics—the folks having all of that fun in Almost Famous—and each weighed in with an essay praising the one album they’d choose for company if marooned on a desert island.

Despite that unforgivably goofy premise, many of these essays—Nick Tosches on the career of the Rolling Stones, Lester Bangs on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Ellen Willis on The Velvet Underground, Dave Marsh on Onan’s Greatest Hits (an invented compilation of great rock songs about masturbation)—remain essential reading for anyone interested in good writing about great rock ’n’ roll. Some of the others are equally unforgettable, but for different reasons; these include such classics as John Rockwell championing Linda Ronstadt’s Living in the U.S.A. and Grace Lichtenstein cheering for the Eagles’ Desperado.

Stranded was reprinted by the fine folks at Da Capo Press in 1996, and in the introduction to that edition, Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of the Rock-Critic Academy (East Coast), expressed his hope that a new generation of rock writers—the one that came of age in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and which has now largely replaced the pioneers of the ’60s and ’70s in the paying gigs—will produce a Stranded of its own.

This is not that book.

In the words of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” these are different times, and the central notion of Stranded seems cornier than ever in an era when a peculiarly narrow vision of rock history is enshrined and hermetically sealed in a pyramid-shaped Hall of Fame on the banks of Lake Erie, following an annual five-hundred-dollars-a-plate, tuxedo-clad induction ceremony at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. The time is indeed ripe for an anthology that displays the aesthetics and voices of some of the best new music writers, but this is a group that is more diverse, cynical, sarcastic, curious, and irreverent than the one that preceded it, and any anthology of its work should capture its contentious alternative spirit, as well as its contrarian vision of rock history.

Welcome to Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics, a collection of thirty-four essays in which each writer addresses an allegedly “great” album that he or she despises. If we want to be high-minded about it, we can call it a spirited assault on a pantheon that has been foisted upon us, or a defiant rejection of the hegemonic view of rock history espoused by the critics who preceded us. If we want to use the vernacular, let’s just say it’s a loud, angry, but hopefully amusing “Fuck you.”

I first conceived of this collection in 1995, during my mercifully brief tenure at Rolling Stone—which isn’t surprising, given that magazine’s obsessive devotion to charting a rock ’n’ roll canon. (More about that silly business in a moment.) In the years that followed, I pitched this book to several publishers, all of whom responded with a look of shocked indignation and some variation of the authoritative dismissal that, “No one wants to read a book of all negative reviews.” Jeff Nordstedt was the first editor who enthusiastically responded in the affirmative—which, again, isn’t surprising, given that he works for Barricade Books, a house founded by the octogenarian publishing legend and First Amendment absolutist, Lyle Stuart, a punk-rock soul if ever I encountered one.

Jeff agreed with me that it is often more fun to read a really bad review than it is to read a really good one. A savage but well-considered critique of a piece of art that you love gets your blood flowing. The point isn’t necessarily to change your thinking about a work that you adore, but to prod you to consider anew why you admire that work. As such, the pan can be much more stimulating (and useful) than the paean. The most illuminating reviews I’ve read of On the Road—a book I consider a sacred text—are not the many fawning praises, but the brutal trashings (Kerouac wasn’t writing, he was typing), because they make me reexamine what I love about the novel. Of course, it can be a jolly good time indulging in the public flogging of a sacred cow, and why should rock criticism be any more polite or restrained than the nightly debate at the corner sports bar or the spirited back-and-forth of politics? Why should anything be accepted as dogma in an art form (the devil’s music, no less!) that, at its best, is about questioning everything?

A lot of people don’t think this way; a lot of people don’t like to think, period. Baby Boomers, the largest generation in American history, some seventy-six million strong, are particularly prone to safeguarding works whose value they adopted as articles of faith in their youth, even though said youth is now several decades behind them.

Nostalgia is still a relatively new concept, and many scholars view it as a byproduct of fears about industrialization and modernization. With Greek roots meaning “to return home” (“nostos”) and “pain” (“algos”), the word was coined in 1688 in a medical treatise by a nineteen-year-old Swiss physician looking to describe a severe and sometimes lethal form of homesickness as he studied soldiers suffering from a mysterious malaise while serving far away from their mountain homes. In the Victorian era, the word came to signify a spiritual sickness rather than a genuine illness; in 1874, the poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy called nostalgia “the disease of the soul.” More recently, scholar Susan Stewart dubbed it “a social disease” and defined it as “the repetition that mourns the inauthenticity of all repetition.” Parse the academic-speak, and Stewart is basically saying that it’s foolish to live in the past—especially a glorified, rose-tinted past that is largely a fictitious recreation. Or, as political pundit Art Buchwald quipped, “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”

It is particularly sad to see people who are nostalgic for a past they never even experienced. As I write this, the downstairs neighbor in my Chicago three-flat—one of the seventy-two million members of Generation Y, the second-largest generation in American history, and the Baby Boomers’ snot-nosed progeny—is once again playing The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan at ear-shattering, floor-rattling volume. He does this two or three times a day, every day, and has ever since I moved in six months ago. Granted, it could be much, much worse—he could be blasting Dave Matthews or the Grateful Dead—but while I once loved this album, I am now at the point where I never want to hear it again. When I asked this fellow about his fascination with this disc, he responded with the question, “What else is there to listen to?” He can’t fathom the idea that there’s ever been another album worthy of his time or that there’s been any worthwhile music made at all since 1962, which is approximately two decades before he was born. He’s an extreme case, and I pity him: He’s in his early twenties, and his life is already over. In fact, it never even began, at least not in terms of experiencing great art made in the moment—his moment, instead of his parents’.

Now, about that canon business: In the early ’90s, the hallowed halls of the academy were rudely awakened from their soporific slumbers by the sound and fury of the so-called “culture wars.” Here was a rabid backlash against what conservatives perceived as the insidious plague of “political correctness” on our college campuses, spread by the voices of diversity who’d been trying since the mid-’60s to broaden the literary curriculum away from “dead white European males”—you know, guys like Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope—in order to include folks who weren’t . . . well, quite so dead, white, European, or male.

The heavy hitters of literary conservatism and canon defense were, ironically, two unrelated men named Bloom. Allan Bloom, the late sociology professor and philosopher, published The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, and Harold Bloom, a professor of humanities at Yale, gave us The Western Canon in 1994. Here were the cornerstones of the defensive wall erected in the war against P.C., and the battle still rages today. Do a quick Web search on key words such as “Western” and “canon,” and you’ll find not only reams of blatherous articles, pro and con, but countless syllabi for courses with titles such as “Canon Revision: History, Theory, Practice” that attempt to answer pressing queries like, “Why does society need a canon?” and “Why does the just-in-time society of ‘postindustrialism’ need revisionary canons?”

Good questions, but I would like to think that the dynamic, impolite, and ever-evolving art form of rock ’n’ roll has better things to be concerned about. Hell, Allan Bloom said as much in The Closing of the American Mind. “Rock music has one appeal, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire not love, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored,” he wrote. “It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimizing them.” He meant that as a slam—rock is too juvenile to ever be considered as “Art” by Bloom’s kind—but I take it as a compliment. At its best, rock music is focused on living in the present, celebrating the wonder and intense discovery of the world around you, just as a child does. It would seem by definition to be opposed to the very notion of fixing in stone a canon. Yet the rock media is obsessed with doing exactly that.

In recent years, we’ve seen countless unimaginative efforts to enumerate and rank rock’s icons in just about every mainstream rock rag, as well as on radio, MTV, VH1, and in that ludicrous glass pyramid in Cleveland that I mentioned earlier. But the institution most dedicated to charting the sounds we need to venerate is the granddaddy of ’em all, Rolling Stone. I’ll confess that in the midst of editing this collection, I had a brief crisis of conscience when I wondered if this book was too much of a childish exercise—the rock-critic equivalent of the bratty kid wiping his snot on the blackboard in feeble protestation of the injustices of third-grade life—but that very day, Rolling Stone No. 937 arrived, a “Special Collectors Issue” all-knowingly titled “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” and Kill Your Idols once again seemed not only valid, but absolutely necessary.

Set aside for a moment consideration of whether the album as we know it—a collection of songs recorded at a particular point in time and arranged in a particular order in the attempt to capture an elusive moment, like snapshots in a photo album—is still a valid concept in the age of downloading, when the fan has as much power to define the listening experience as the artist, if not more. Anachronism or no, I still love the album as a measure of artistic value, and so do all of the contributors to this book. But even if we play by Rolling Stone’s old-fashioned rules, there are still serious problems with this business of dictating “the best albums of all time.”

For one thing, there’s the issue of consistency. Rolling Stone now tells us that the ten best albums ever are, in order: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (which isn’t even the best Beatles album!), Pet Sounds, Revolver, Highway 61 Revisited, Rubber Soul, What’s Going On, Exile on Main St., London Calling, Blonde on Blonde, and The Beatles (a.k.a. “The White Album”). But back in the summer of 1987, the mag’s twentieth anniversary issue was dedicated to listing “The 100 Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years.” At that point, rabid Beatlemaniac Jann Wenner and his sycophantic underlings announced that the top ten albums were, once again in order: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Never Mind the Bollocks . . . Here’s the Sex Pistols, Exile on Main St., Plastic Ono Band, Are You Experienced?, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Astral Weeks, Born to Run, “The White Album,” and What’s Going On.

Given that the top picks in both cases span the same time frame, what happened to Bowie, the Boss, Van Morrison, and the Plastic Ono Band that made them fall out of grace in the intervening years? Did those albums somehow grow “less great,” while the additional Beatles efforts and Pet Sounds got better? And how could Rolling Stone possibly be more conservative fifteen years later, knocking the Sex Pistols all the way down to No. 41, and remaining as blissfully dismissive of hip-hop as it was before the genre started its decade-plus run as the dominant sound in popular music? (Rap’s first appearance on the new list is at No. 48, with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.)

What we’re really seeing here is a panicked, turtle-like, Blooms-style defense by a still absurdly Boomer-centric publication against the notion not of P.C., but of “critical correctness”—a more expansive, postmodern view of the history of “rock” (and I’ve used that term all-inclusively throughout this introduction) which dares to acknowledge that, say, in the eyes of legions of today’s punks, the Ramones are infinitely more important than the Rolling Stones; that to countless hip-hoppers, Run-DMC is more revered than Jimi Hendrix (and rightly so), and that the entire electronic music and dance underground views Kraftwerk as boundlessly more influential than the Beatles.

Primarily members of Generations X and Y (with a few strays who are, technically speaking, demographic Baby Boomers, though they identify philosophically as X’ers), the men and women who’ve written for this book resent the notion that they missed out on everything just because they weren’t at Woodstock. They’ve seen the movie and it sucked, and many of them have been to raves in warehouses and muddy fields that had much cooler soundtracks, not to mention better drugs. How much of the “classic rock” of the last fifty years is defended by the lame notion that, “You really had to be there”? Shouldn’t a great album speak to you even if you weren’t?

Postmodernism has taught us that history is fluid, and it can be considered from many different perspectives. An event like Custer’s Last Stand can be examined from the points of view of the conscripts, the officers, the headstrong general, the Native-American warriors, the chiefs, the wives, the white politicians, the settlers, or the forces of capitalist expansion, among many others. In the rock world, the reason that alternative views are so frightening to conservative critics is that they require these cultural arbiters to keep listening and grant that maybe, just maybe, the best sounds ever are still to come, instead of being forever embalmed in the amber of the past. The only valid response that any true rock fan should have to some pompous, omniscient windbag standing at the front of the class prattling on about “the true masterpieces” and “the good old days” is to make the loudest farting noise possible.

When I asked my fellow flatulent troublemakers to include a list of their top ten albums along with their biographies—a task that, iconoclasts one and all, many groused about, and a few never did fulfill—I wasn’t trying to illustrate some revisionist canon that would “correct” all of these problems. In addition to giving the reader some insight into what albums each of these critics value (after you’ve just read about one they believe is offensive, overrated, over-hyped, or just plain lousy), I fully expected that many of them would laud one or more discs that their peers have just demolished. They didn’t let me down: It happened no less than thirty-six times. This is to say that many of these writers will be as angry with each other as you might be with them, if they just pissed on your particular tree. For the record, I myself think that no fewer than sixteen of them are just dead wrong. And all of this is as it should be.

We ought to just abandon the whole stupid idea of having a single rock canon, and instead stand ready to question and re-examine our values and assumptions at any time, while communicating with people who share our passions and thereby coming to a greater understanding not only of differing viewpoints, but of ourselves. Most of all, we should revel in whatever joyful noises each and every one of us decides is “the greatest” for ourselves in the here and now.

In closing, I have to say that I am a fan of all of the writers I approached to contribute an original essay to this book, and I’m happy to note that all but a few of them—folks who were otherwise occupied with lame obligations such as crushing deadlines or the recent birth of a child—happily obliged. In fact, they were all chomping at the bit to have at one reputed classic or another, generally harboring a long list of pent-up grievances that have been mounting since their teens. Given that they were, essentially, working for free (there is a down side to Lyle Stuart being a First Amendment absolutist), these were labors of love—which may seem like a strange thing to say, because they were writing about albums that they hate. But there was a sadomasochistic element to this entire endeavor: In agreeing to deconstruct a work they intensely disliked, by necessity, they had to spend much more time with that album than they were able to spend with the countless others that they love. I’m veering off into some very murky waters of the psyche here, but I’ll venture that deep down, at some level, some part of you must admire an album—or at least the genre it comes from and what it is supposed to represent—in order to adequately explain why you find it thoroughly repugnant.

Kill your idols, indeed.

In addition to the writers, I have to thank Jeff Nordstedt, Lyle Stuart, Carole Stuart, Jennifer Itskevich, and everyone at Barricade Books; my bandmate, Chris Martiniano, for his outstanding cover design; my agents, Chris Calhoun and Kassie Evashevski; my beautiful and brilliant co-editor, co-conspirator, collaborator, and wife, Carmél Carrillo; and most all of, you, the reader. I hope that you enjoy reading this book as much as we enjoyed putting it together—or at the very least, that you love hating it.