Kill Your Idols by Jim DeRogatis and
Any serious fan of rock music can reel off a list of so-called classic albums or
sainted artists that do nothing for him (or her, as the case may be). For
example, I've never been able to get into Patti Smith she may have seemed to
be an edgy punk in her day, but I have always found her music to be just as
pretentious as the prog rock that punk, to an extent, was trying to eradicate.
It's always healthy to question the orthodoxy. It's in this spirit that Jim
DeRogatis and his wife, Carmel Carrillo, put together Kill Your Idols (barricadebooks.com).
A cross-section of contemporary rock critics contributed essays, explaining why
they dislike an album that is generally considered a classic. The book is at
turns entertaining and annoying, enlightening and dull. That is to say, it is
the book equivalent of most compilation albums hit and miss. Still, any true
rock geek will want to pick it up.
DeRogatis's foreword is a sharp take on the need to challenge aesthetic
assumptions about rock. DeRogatis opines that since rock is about immediacy,
wonder and discovery, that the notion of a rock canon' is pretty much
oxymoronic. As The Clash once said about punk rock, there are no rules.
DeRogatis picks the right album to start off with The Beatles' Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In his essay, DeRogatis certainly makes
some good points. Yet he immerses them in such hyperbole, that what may have
been either an attempt to emulate his idol Lester Bangs or simply to be funny,
comes off as fairly lame. The nadir of his piece is his take on "With a Little
Help from My Friends", which he sees as exposing Ringo Starr:
"[The song] is something of a slap in the face to the guy,
implying that he certainly can't get by on his own not with his looks, his
drumming chops, or, Lord knows, his singing voice so he needs the assistance
of his much cooler pals to accomplish anything. He sounds rather pathetic as he
plays the Everyman pleading for someone to love, and his bandmates are
condescending as they add their two cents via the backing vocals. (They have no
problem getting laid, ha ha)."
Gosh, Jim, and Ringo's such a fool that he went ahead and
sang this song anyway! The rube! I'd like to believe that he is being extra
facetious here hence, I'm inclined to call this drivel unfunny and childish.
However, based on the overall tone of essay, it is quite likely that this
portion is malicious, ill-informed and childish.
This isn't the only time a writer runs off the rails. Adrian Brijbassi takes on
Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album. Nearly half of its ten pages are devoted
to, in painful detail, his story of dancing with his dream girl at a high school
dance to "Stairway to Heaven". Brijbassi describes how they slow danced during
the acoustic portion, and as the song moved into the rock portion, he clung
tightly to his girl-woman, engaging in high speed frottage, hoping the song
would come to an end, with dance concluding, tragically, in his orgasm. If the
story is true, it's pathetic, and if he made it up, it's three times as
pathetic. And five fucking pages of it?
Then there's the tag team desecration of U2's Joshua Tree by Eric
Waggoner and Bob Mehr. While there are a few valid points strewn throughout
their essay, they are overwhelmed by the constant digs at Bono and lots of
disingenuous criticism. They think it quite clever to quote lyrical phrase that
are repeated (for example, Bono repeating "and you give yourself away" from
"With or Without You") to show that U2's lyrics are poor. Rather than fairly
engage the flaws in the album, they take the low road, critically speaking. And
there are a few similar examples on some other essays.
This is balanced by some excellent writing. Keith Moerer may deserve the gold
medal for his persuasive evisceration of The Rolling Stones's Exile on Main
Street. He does a great job of discussing the context in which the album was
made, the personnel used and the music itself, in making his point that it isn't
a great album. Jason Gross's piece on Trout Mask Replicaby Captain
Beefheart & His Magic Band is nearly as good, and there are also top notch
pieces by Rick Reger (Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie And The Infinite
Sadness), Fred Mills (Neil Young Harvest) and Dawn Eden (The Beach
Boys Smile), among others.
One thing that crops up over the course of so many essays is that they tend to
rely on the observation that: 1) the album doesn't hold up to better albums by
the same artist, or, 2) the album doesn't hold up to better albums by
contemporary artists. Fair enough. Other essays seem to have one specific beef
Antonio Orteza can't forgive Public Enemy for questionable racial lyrics on
It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Jim Testa takes great issue
with the fact that many of The Sex Pistols songs sound similar on Never Mind
The Bollocks, and he feels they stole the due that should of gone to Ramones
(whose songs were the apex of variety, right?), and the aforementioned Brijbassi
notes that Led Zeppelin stole more than Ronnie Biggs.
Oh, and then there's that old saw they don't rock, or something related to the
rebellion that short sighted rock crits believe is the essence of rock. The
second essay in the book is Jeff Nordstedt's rant against The Beach Boys' Pet
Sounds. Beyond such trenchant criticisms such as the fact that Tony Asher
had written lyrics for commercial jingles and that some of the music is happy
even though the lyrics aren't, Nordstedt is also upset because "[a] great rock
album should scare your parents." Yep, that's what rock is all about. By that
standard, I suppose The Mentors and W.A.S.P. rank amongst the best rock bands
Anyway, in reading these essays, it comes through loud and clear that there
seems to be a limited number of ways to approach writing about an album, great
or otherwise. This becomes more apparent in a few essays, where the writers seem
to have difficulty specifically dealing with the music itself. Now context is
important to explain why an album is overrated, but some writers can't seem to
get beyond context.
One other thing I concluded by the end of the book is that it doesn't really
effectively challenge the so-called rock canon DeRogatis wrote about in his
forward. DeRogatis notes that many of the albums that are targeted in the
individual essays turn up on the all-time top 10 lists of the contributors,
which are featured at the end of the book. This may be a sign that this book is
not quite the best format with which to address the ideas DeRogatis writes about
in the foreword. Targeting individual albums may not provide the right
perspective for figuring out how this canon developed and the flaws in the
canon. Further, the varying perspectives on display further blur the notions
that DeRogatis may ostensibly want to achieve with this book.
Moreover, I'm not sure there even is a rock canon. While all of the albums here
may be considered standard bearers, that's not quite the same thing as a set of
rules that should be adhered to. Indeed, if you took a bunch of reviews from any
of these writers you'd probably find them riddled with aesthetic
inconsistencies. One review extols the primal simplicity of The Cramps while
another praises Radiohead for their mind expanding complexity. It's not that
these two positions can't be reconciled -- it's that usually no writer ever
tries (or has the forum) to do so. This is exemplified by the Doors piece by
DeRogatis and Lorraine Ali, where they take swings at Mr. Mojo Rising and
company for their lounge band tendencies. Yet, I bet you'd never hear them say
the same thing about Love, even though Forever Changes has a
lounge/soft-pop thang going on. And I'd agree with them that Love was quite
superior to The Doors. It just didn't have anything to do with The Doors's
choice of instrumentation.
It's clearly difficult to really challenge any purported canon of rock on an
album by album basis, because each album only represents a small part of the
whole. Maybe a good follow up book would be to try to take on larger aesthetic
judgments about rock music and go after them. Challenge the assumptions that
have been made about punk or prog or soft pop, etc.
That's another book. In the meantime, someone (DeRogatis? The
publisher?) should set up a website and allow the various writers of these
essays to respond to their colleagues. I think the interchange between these
writers might be more illuminating than the book itself. Which isn't a knock on
the book -- for all of its flaws, it will make you think twice about purported
masterpieces. So some idols are, at the very least, wounded.