[fragments from a prototype book review much different from what made it into print...]
Few would claim that we’re living through a golden age for music. But there does seem to be an emerging consensus that this is something of a golden age for music books. Early in 2011, U.K. magazine The Wire staged Off The Page, a two-day festival dedicated to music writing that was so well-received it’s now set to be an annual event, while American alternative-music webzine Pitchfork recently launched Paper Trail, a series of interviews with music authors. As remarkable as the quality of the work that’s been coming out is the diversity of subject and approach, ranging from sweeping historical overviews (Rob Young’s British folk opus Electric Eden) to zoom-lens studies (David Browne’s Fire and Rain documents the single year 1970), and from associative drifts such as David Toop’s Sinister Resonance to monographs focused on individual artists (Owen Hatherley’s Pulp micro-tome Uncommon People) or specific albums (Continuum’s often superb 33 1/3 series). These highpoints stand out amid a constant torrent of less distinguished biographies, oral histories, and lavishly designed and largely pictorial retrospectives.
It seems significant that virtually none of these books, major or minor, deal with contemporary music or artists who rose to prominence in the 21st Century. The past, and usually the relatively remote past—the Sixties and Seventies above all—appears to offer more for authors to chew on than post-Internet music. Partly that’s because music back then felt more connected to social and political currents, and thus seems more consequential. So much of the really thought-provoking and enjoyable music of the last decade has been meta-music that plays witty games with esoteric sources drawn from pop’s ever-accumulating archive. Yet it’s precisely because the popcult past inundates us with its instant-access availability and materiality (reissues and fileshares, YouTube’s TV clips and live footage, reunion tours and memorabilia exhibitions) that book-length analysis feels more essential than ever. Longform writing supplies a crucial element of abstraction, cutting through retro culture’s bombardment of senseless sense-impressions and allowing the clear signal of truth to emerge from the welter of fact.
What could be truer than a photograph? In Bob Gruen’s Rock Seen (Abrams Books), there are many iconic images from across his four-decade career as a legendary lensman: John Lennon posing in front of the Statue of Liberty, Yoko Ono deplaning into a pit of paparazzi, Bob Dylan’s wizened strangeness, and shot after classic shot from punk’s early days, when Gruen first made his name photographing bands like The New York Dolls, Sex Pistols, and Blondie. But ultimately what Rock Seen reveals is that even the most compelling rockpic is a mute witness. I don’t just mean that the dimension of sound is necessarily absent (one exception here is a short exposure shot of Tina Turner onstage under strobe light, an erotic-kinetic whirl of light-smeared multiple images you can almost hear as paroxysmic rhythm). Ultimately these pictures don’t really tell you anything. I’m biased, naturally, being a text-worker, but I think that pictures are rarely worth a thousand words. The best rock writers, operating at full-strength, can catch more of the music’s essence in a couple of sentences than all the carefully posed or fly-on-the-wall shots in deluxe photobooks. Rock photography requires an eye but not a point of view. Its raison d’etre is radically different to criticism. The photographer’s job is to make the musicians look good, or at least “cool” (which can mean inelegant or grotesque by conventional standards). They don’t have to ask difficult questions or judge the artist’s latest work. The flat inanity of Gruen’s captions--“David Bowie is the ultimate performer”, “the New York Dolls shocked people with their androgynous look”, “[the Pistols]had a reputation for being very shocking, but they offered me a cup of tea and seemed normal enough”—show that he chose shrewdly when he picked up an Olympus rather than an Olivetti.
An increasingly popular mode for presenting the rock past, oral history has the exact opposite liability to the photo-book: it makes nearly everyone look bad, invariably de-heroicizing the protagonists until they seem smaller than life. Oral historians seem particularly drawn to punk rock: there’s been a raft of books documenting city-based scenes for Seventies punk or Eighties hardcore, a trend that can be traced back to Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain’s 1997 book Please Kill Me, which billed itself as about punk as a whole but was almost entirely focused on New York....and which unfolds as one long litany of baseness, egomania, and drug squalor (history as junk, just one sordid thing after another).... unputdownable on a certain level but leaves the reader feeling vaguely degraded, like you’ve been mindlessly bingeing on reality TV.
The graft and craft involved in oral history is actually similar to reality TV’s production process: copious documentation followed by judicious editing and sequencing... What keeps the genre from rising to the level of full-blown rock literature is the absence of a synthesizing authorial voice.
Real rock history navigates a path between the unpretty facts and the instant myths that spring up around the music....
One way to recover a sense of how music was received in its original moment is through the rock journalism collection. There’s been a bumper crop this season, with volumes by Ellen Willis, Neil Strauss, Byron Coley, Chuck Eddy, and Paul Nelson....
the problem is that which music is going to matter, to become a meaningful phenomenon through mass or cult popularity, is rarely apparent at the time of a record’s release