Excerpted from Chapter 1: Predicting the Future, from Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism by © Chuck Eddy, published October 2011. Copyright © Duke University Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission of Duke University Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Predicting the Future
If you’ve written as much as I have, for as long as I have, you’re bound to get some things right by chance alone. But rock criticism is not a particularly predictive genre, and trying to guess where music will go five or 10 or 20 years down the line is generally a fool’s game. Robert Christgau used to do pretty well now and then in his Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll essays— predicting “New Wave disco” at the end of the 1978 one and then watching M’s “Pop Muzik” and Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” battle it out for top single in the poll a year later, for instance—but just as often he seemed to be foretelling a devastating collapse of Western culture that never quite showed up, not entirely anyway. My own crystal ball work has generally proven even less successful than his. But I’ve had my moments.
Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism
(Duke University Press)
US: Oct 2011
In early 1986, in perhaps the shortest review ever to lead off the Voice music section up to that point, I reviewed Aerosmith’s Done With Mirrors—a very good album pretty much everybody else ignored, since at that point they’d been considered drugged-out toppling-off-the-stage has-beens plying an extinct musical style for years—and I talked about growing up surrounded by the band’s music in the ’70s, and about how songs like “Walk This Way” and “Lord Of The Thighs” were sort of rap music before rap music existed, and maybe an enterprising DJ should segue one of them into the (not yet famous) Beastie Boys’ “She’s On It” single sometime. Doug Simmons, a Boston boy like Steve Tyler and Joe Perry himself and the Voice’s music editor at the time, thought I was just being provocative and messing with readers’ heads, and told me so. Which maybe I was, but he was clearly short on copy to fill his pages that week, so the lines stayed in, and apparently future Beastie producer and Columbia Records exec Rick Rubin read them—or at least writers bound for greater news-magazine glory such as John Leland later reported that Rubin did. But either way, a couple weeks later, press releases were definitely issued saying Rubin’s charges Run-D.M.C. would cover “Walk This Way” on their next album. The song became a Top 5 hit and a bigger video, with Tyler and Perry symbolically busting through a wall to lend the rappers a hand. Which both set in motion a couple decades’ worth of rap-metal (yep— all my fault!) and relaunched the now-sober Aerosmith’s career; starting with their next album, Permanent Vacation in 1987, they wound up bigger-selling (albeit smaller-rocking) stars than they’d ever been in their initial ’70s heyday. They still owe me, and so do Liv Tyler and Alicia Silverstone.
And here’s a story I didn’t piece together until 20 years after the fact, over beers in Austin with critic Kevin John Bozelka in early 2009. Writing about Sonic Youth’s album Sister in the Voice in 1987, I smart-assedly called it “Afterburner to Evol’s Eliminator”—which is to say, a half-hearted Xerox of their previous album. I’m pretty sure nobody had ever compared Sonic Youth to ZZ Top before that. Over the years, as it turned out, Sister wound up being by far my favorite Sonic Youth album—just a lot of concise catchy songs that didn’t drag, I guess. But what I somehow never noticed until Bozelka mentioned it to me decades later is that, in 1988, Sonic Youth wound up ending their next LP—Daydream Nation, Bozelka’s favorite album of all time and probably the critic-consensus SY choice but one that I never fully connected with and that precipitated me never caring about another note of their subsequent music—with a song called “Eliminator Jr.” Coincidence? Your call. (For what it’s worth, Thurston Moore also put out a fanzine called Killer in the ’80s in which he called me “Fuck Eddy.” And he and Kim named their 1994-born daughter Coco not long after I’d written about my own 1989-born daughter Coco in the Voice. Not that I’m actually taking credit for the latter.)
Anyway, neither the Aerosmith nor Sonic Youth reviews show up in this book—while perhaps prescient, they just really don’t read all that good. But I am including my 1983 Top 10 album list printed with the Pazz & Jop poll, in which I was probably the first critic ever to vote for a Sonic Youth album (namely Confusion Is Sex), and unquestionably the first one whose ballot-containing-Sonic-Youth was ever actually published. Though I’d previously voted in the poll in 1981 (“That’s The Joint”!) and 1982 (um, Pere Ubu’s Song Of The Bailing Man I think—actually, I never kept copies of those ballots), I’m pretty sure Christgau had no idea who I was. But in 1983, I augmented my ballot with an 11-page manifesto complaining about the state of rock criticism, declaring that everything interesting in music was already over, and mourning my having missed the whole boat. He printed a big chunk of it (the “Over and Out” piece that follows this intro) and quoted me in the opening paragraph of his own essay (“Chuck Eddy, the West Bloomfield, Michigan freelancer”—actually I was a U.S. Army officer in West Germany by then, but I little-white-lied on my ballot to circumvent potential anti-military bigotry; technically, since I wasn’t actually reviewing records anymore like I had been in college, I wasn’t even eligible to vote). Christgau also mentioned that my ballot had inspired him to “share [his] essay with the voters”; though Pazz & Jop dated back to 1974 (or 1971—it’s complicated), he’d never done that before. But from then on, for the next 23 years until he and I were fired from the Voice, he included voter comments in the Pazz & Jop section. He also asked me to start writing for the paper; the first review I got paid for, of Bad Religion’s Into The Unknown, ran a month or so later and shows up in this book’s alternative rock section. The rest is history, or a sorry excuse for it.
And the rest of this section should be self-explanatory. But in case you’re wondering: Rap music did turn into something more than a passing fad. Rock music from Seattle did indeed get really big on MTV and elsewhere for a few years there, after Skin Yard founding member Jack Endino produced early records by bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden and the Screaming Trees, though for some dumb reason people decided to call the sound he helped invent “grunge” (a genre name I and any number of other critics had been applying to loud dirty rock for years) rather than “bigfoot-rock.” The Flaming Lips, whom I’m pretty sure I was the first writer ever to profile for a national publication, got more and more famous as they got more and more boring. Radiohead became the universally acclaimed Most Important Rock Band On The Planet for reasons that never made much sense to me. Acid house and techno irrevocably changed music around the Western world, except in the United States, yet dropped off my radar after I chronicled them in January 1989. The interweb altered how artists promoted themselves and how kids learned about new bands and so on. New Kids On The Block broke up. And if you want to get technical, as of this writing, World War III still hasn’t happened yet.
Over and Out
Chuck Eddy: X More Fun In The New World (Elektra) 22; Blasters Non Fiction (Slash/Warner Bros.) 19; Was (Not Was) Born To Laugh At Tornadoes (Geffen) 11; Richard Thompson Hand Of Kindness (Hannibal) 9; Sonic Youth Confusion Is Sex (Neutral) 8; Al Green I’ll Rise Again (Myrrh) 8; Nile Rodgers Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove (Mirage) 7; Rolling Stones Undercover (Rolling Stones) 6; Divinyls Desperate (Chrysalis) 5; ESG Come Away (99) 5.
How the fuck can you revolutionize an industry which has accepted Pere Ubu and Essential Logic and the Angry Samoans and Teenage Jesus and the Birthday Party? You can’t. Nothing scares anybody anymore, nothing surprises anybody anymore, there’s no such thing as a real mindfuck because people’s minds have already been fucked with over and over and over again. I never realized it until now, but the Sex Pistols were the worst thing that ever happened to rock’n’roll—they demanded anarchy, and they got it. Anarchy means you can do whatever you want, and that’s what everybody since the Sex Pistols has done. This has given us a surplus of interesting music, but it’s also given us a situation in which you can’t tell the artists from the poseurs. Sly Stone and the Dolls were able to make revolutionary music because, back then, there were dictated limits on what you could or couldn’t do, and they did what they “couldn’t.” Now there are no such limits—what if Sly and the Dolls had waited until 1983, and everything else (the Ramones, the Pistols, PiL, Prince, and all) between 1970 and now had happened without them? Would Greil Marcus still be able to write that “there is no vocal music in rock to match” Riot, or that “nothing short of the Sex Pistols’ singles has touched it”? I doubt it.
And yet, the rock critics of the world are going to spend their time voting on which 1983 videos were the most fun to watch. And we’re going to accept Prince, or Grandmaster Flash, or King Sunny Adé, or Flipper, or Big Country, or Bob Fucking Dylan, or (see my Top 10) X, and we’re gonna push whatever we like as the bearer of the future of rock’n’roll, as if there is such a thing. I think this is kind of what Lester Bangs meant by the “be the first one on your block” attitude; unfortunately, he died before he could offer any kind of solution or alternative, except that we should listen to old John Lee Hooker records. I wish I had a solution, and God and Lester know I need one more than the Christgaus and Marcuses of this world do—I just turned 23 a month or so ago, and I only started to listen to music “seriously” in 1979, and I haven’t seen a real rock’n’roll revolution yet, and I want a There’s A Riot Goin’ On or a New York Dolls or a Johnny Rotten so bad I could shit. But I’m not going to get one.
What I’ll probably get is World War III, and then we’ll start all over again, and if I’m lucky and if I cut down on my salt intake I might live to see Prehistoric Ring Shouts II when I’m an old old man. And ring shouts will lead to spirituals and field hollers, and the Delta Blues and Appalachian banjo music and Western Swing will happen in there somewhere, and then yet another Elvis, and maybe I’ll be able to see the next New York Dolls or Sly Stone when I’m in heaven. Great hope for the future of rock’n’roll, right? I mean, I might not even make it to heaven. Fuck you, Johnny Rotten.
- Village Voice, 28 February 1984