BARRICADE BOOKS, 320 PAGES, $16
IF 2004 has been the publishing industry's Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (with Bill Clinton as both aging actress and insolent gigolo), readers looking for singularly self-involved and self-referential subjects can continue to find such in summer's gluttonous influx of rock tomes.
For what has the rock book become but proof positive its writers have read other people who wrote similar rock books about subjects whose vanity is onanistic at best? In turns apologetically irreverent and slavering, the rockbookwriter can only hope to get out of this mess without having choked from the tadpoles.
This does not necessarily bring me to Stephen Davis, whose Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend came out the week before Bill Clinton's My Life. Following in the footsteps of his other rock book, the libidinous Hammer of the Gods, Davis treks after hallowed dopes who continue to amaze the over-40 haddabeetheres and under-25 whatwheres? long after their relevance merits little more than a footnote and a quickie dinner in Cleveland. Just as Davis didn't say much critically about Zeppelin sucking at the teat of Sonny Boy Williamson, he doesn't take Morrison to task for being rock's most wretched poet. Good hair. Bad prose.
Morrison is for Rolling Stone readers who still believe in rock's street-walking-cheetah, misty-mountain-hopping Dionysian dream; crowds who look to be transformed by their heroes; needy readers who, even in finding fault in Jimbo (misogyny, body odor, dorkish analogies) must allow themselves to be taken away—or have their rotted perceptions anointed—by this Pan of Venice Beach. Because, at this stage of their game, it's either be taken by the Lizard King or drive the kids to The Lion King. And certainly, if the aged remaining Doors have their say, some slickness is in preproduction for the Great White Way: a looming crystal ship, kick-turning L.A. women, floating leather pants, a bang-up bathtub ending. "Turn out the light"—I can hear Nathan Lane singing it now.
In hopes of getting rock out of its dutiful worship, some writers have embraced an anti-hero stance that seeks to roast the totemic. Often, the roasting leaves its subject juicy and still happily kicking. For instance, I'd hoped to see more burning, bitching and biting in the Continuum Publishing Group's series "Thirty Three and a Third" of writers' takes on selected classics. But the tiny books often lack my need for speed and spite. The new ones, Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground and Nico by Joe Harvard and Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures by Chris Ott, are too nice, too involved in their retelling of an album's relevance to their lives. I understand that love—not hate—was the reason behind matching critic to LP, but maybe Continuum might consider shaking things up for their next round. Get Ott high, for instance, and make him listen to Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark.
Which leaves me with editor Jim DeRogatis' Kill Your Idols. DeRogatis and co-editor Carmel Carrillo offer a simple Nike-like premise to the cast of lambasters from Mojo, Magnet, Wired and this very paper. Skewer the classics, they direct. Beat on the baby-booming icons. Mince the moaningly hegemonistic block-rocking sacred cowering cows that have too long been too untouchable.
DeRogatis is the guy to head up this wilding bunch. Throughout the Chicago reviewer's tenure at Spin-and-such (captured in the big Milk It's volume of vitriol and vinegar), he's been the pub-crawling, bar-brawling sort, the red-faced drunk unafraid of dissing the Bears or pissing on the Cubs. Of course, he did write a book on Lester Bangs (Let It Blurt), so his tone too often channels Lester's—minus the absurdist rants. DeRogatis may not always be right, but he's always worth reading.
Perhaps I like him because his call-it-like-I-see-it attitude isn't in lockstep with magazines whose sense of marketeering and synergy rivals their takes on criticism. For him, no cow is too cool to make drool. That's the screed handed down by DeRogatis and Carrillo to their Idol-ing writers: Follow the hate that surrounds the summer of love.
Sure. Preplanned bile toward rock's biggest, oldest moldies could lead nowhere. Indeed, DeRogatis' axe to grind against Rolling Stone (where he worked and was let go after a particularly nasty review rankled Jann Wenner) is so famous that perhaps firing fatal holes into Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a Wenner favorite, is nothing but tacky, tattered revenge. That is, if DeRogatis didn't make such succinct, savage claims in his book's initial essay about Pepper's loosely knotted conceptualism, overblown musicality and nasal-dripping vaudevillian nostalgia; pet-peeved criticisms also carried through to the emotional disconnect of Brian Wilson and his sopping-wet, pomp-a-bomp-bomp found within Pet Sounds and Smile.
Elsewhere, Steve Knopper calls the Who's limp Tommy little more than a breathy operetto weakly sung and weedishly spiritual; an embarrassment to the street-urchin, pimple-faced boys of every Who in Whoville save Townshend. Clapton's clap-trapping Layla and Zep's still-questionably-named fourth album suffer from being bloodless rip-offs of blues-masters that came before them in the eyes of, respectively, Marc Weingarten and Adrian Brijbassi. Clapton in particular takes a drubbing for playing the role of smarmy schoolmarm to Layla's second string (but far more intuitive, swamp-doggedly lyrical) guitarist, Duane Allman.
Steven Stolder points out that the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo is little more than the ugly start of an uglier genre. Because honestly: Why bother creating something that rips the guts from rock and the soul of country to give birth to pallid acts like Wilco? No wonder Jeff Tweedy had headaches. He was straining to make something interesting and ambient out of a genre that's little more than watered-down Crazy Horse records without the dust-bowl detritus.
Then again, maybe that's me saying that. Because that's what happens as you read Kill Your Idols: Your inner monster-critic comes screaming through like a wide-eyed Christopher Lee in those Hammer Horror Dracula flicks. Yes, I'm happy to see the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd eaten. But I'm even happier to find that Andy Wang skinned Detroit's MC5 and its go-nowhere radical mau-mau-ness alive à la Kick Out the Jams. Has there ever been a less purposeful record?
For the sake of fairness to the many ages of bad rock music, DeRogatis also finds writers who happen to think Nirvana's Nevermind and Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are overblown and overrated. Having found the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks a poor second to John Lydon/Rotten's own Public Image Limited innovations in post-dub-punk, I can't help but concur.
But like any parlor game, you'll find reasons to gripe. When Fred Mills takes out Neil Young's Harvest, you want him to keep going, to rip into a man whose inconsistent genius may actually make him a dolt. When Jason Gross compares Captain Beefheart to Coleman, Beckett, Joyce and Willie Dixon and criticizes his Trout Mask Replica for creating its own bizzaro world, all you can ask is: That's wrong?
Or when DeRogatis and Lorraine Ali quote Bangs-the-almighty in regard to Jim Morrison being a lounge-singing "Bozo Dionysus," they're missing the point: That's the best thing about Jimbo.
And somewhere, Nathan Lane is memorizing the words to "The End."