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The Grammar of Rock: Art and Artlessness in 20th Century Pop Lyrics

Alexander Theroux

(Fantagraphics; US: Feb 2013)

Given his passion for “exactitude”, Alexander Theroux’s latest book rambles, rants, and roams past the subtitled realm of “Art and Artlessness in 20th Century Pop Lyrics” into his typically vast territory. An incorrigible expounder of amplified rhetoric, he appears never to have forgotten a song heard, a movie seen, a broadcast aired, or a book read. This total recall in his essay collections, the brief (by comparison with this 336-page closely printed text) The Primary Colors and The Secondary Colors generated exegeses of some of the same lyrics, scenes, and usages. Yet, tucked within the limits of the visible spectrum, their chapters were organized by hue and somewhat more cohesive in length and breadth.


As with his 2007 novel, the nearly 900-page Laura Warholic, or the Sexual Intellectual, or his 2011 foray into opinionated non-fiction not quite fact, Estonia (see my 23 November 2011 PopMatters review and appended comments debating this reviewer’s articulation of Theroux’s characteristic modus operandi), The Grammar of Rock bickers with its titular subject. Theroux comes back to it, teasing, jostling, cuddling, kicking the object in question. Then drifting.


Without chapters, pauses, or preface, Theroux’s scrutiny may overwhelm. Having read all of his fiction and essays, I recommend a thick skin and a wry smile. Theroux explains his stance: he listens to the silence when words are spoken. He quotes Harold Pinter, when “a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear.” Theroux advocates Pinter’s attention as a moral act: careful listening to both registers. Theroux apostrophizes: “So look for me, whether with approval or not, over there at the far table—one chair—scribbling with a pencil.”


One chair leaves him scrutinizing alone, the better to hone in on his many likes and more dislikes. Two pages leap from George and Ira Gershwin to Gerard Manley Hopkins to the Van Gogh brothers. Another verso-recto pair connects St. John the Evangelist’s eagle symbol with Henry David Thoreau’s pantheism and Ilse Koch, “the Bitch of Buchenwald”. Theroux soars into aesthetics and sinks into invective at whim. He hates arch whimsy, but he veers off into meticulous instances of soundalike celebrity voices in film rather than staying on task eviscerating sorry singers. He indulges mocking methods, and his mad takes on the traipsing of Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, and Barry Manilow glide alongside appreciation for the phrasing of Frank Sinatra, Slim Whitman, and Sam Cooke.


His three novels, two essay collections, and travelogue feature, or lapse into, similarly fulsome praise of (or, more likely, fulmination against) what we find promoted as literary, musical, or cinematic standards. Disdaining talk radio and populist cant, grammatical inconsistency and “slanguage”, Theroux exocoriates dumbing down, even if he revels in inspired silliness. What he cannot stand: linguistic inanities, sung howlers, spoken clunkers, and verbal tics.


Was a cultural “slippage” in “signaling profundity without having to demonstrate it” always thus? He admits every decade since the ‘30s had its faults; he gave up on music as he did movies around the age of disco, he claims. (But he listens still, as he examines Ghostface Killa, The Fall, Public Enemy’s Chuck D., Morrissey, and Tim McGraw among his cast of thousands.) He alludes to a qualitative decline in our lyrics and scripts today, which may make the gaffes and fumbles of the past century appear as if composed by Cole Porter or Noel Coward. The constant distractions we plug into and pump up the volume for make it “nothing less than a miracle that a human being living in the United States nowadays can entertain a single consecutive thought worth anything.” (Kurt Vonnegut’s story, “Harrison Bergeron”, comes to my mind.) Any reader of Theroux will not endure him long if he or she lacks delight in satire, denigration, and “snobservation”: that term appears in his first paragraph as fair warning.


Yet, as any critic worth consideration, if Theroux admires an artist, he can sum up his or her appeal smartly. Neil Young’s “voice with its twang resembles the harmonica he often plays, full of quivering movements like a Canadian aspen”; Theroux hears “something in it like cherry and chocolate making a Black Forest cake.”


Naturally, the fun of The Grammar of Rock lies in its acerbic prose as well as its aesthetic insights. “Andy Williams loved schmaltz more than a fat kid loves a lazy dog.” P. F. Sloan penned the lyrics for “Eve of Destruction” but the “words could have been written in five minutes on the back of a matchcover with a crayon!”


He supports his shrill or sly claims with a hectoring, stentorian recital of gleeful evidence as demolishing proof. He wonders if he crushes butterflies under his wheel. For instance, cringing from a dubious display of warbled Yuletide cheer from Rosie O’Donnell and Roseanne Barr, he commemorates them “circling” as if “Mrs. Butterworth and Sara Lee Cheesecake on the Pancake Channel”. You’ll either laugh or you won’t. I laughed.


“Who in Tinseltown did not sing?” Apparently nearly nobody, unless Marcel Marceau graced a marquee. Paul Lynde’s lisp on a 1966 episode of F Troop or Telly Savalas’ attempt to cover the Beatles collide with Alfred North Whitehead’s apercu that it “requires a very unusual mind to undertake an analysis of the obvious”: the “grammar of rock” signifies a syntax beyond that genre. Theroux’s ability to explicate the “obvious” by expounding upon hundreds of blunders filmed, performed, and recorded impresses by its relentless energy. Yet its sheer overload proves its own exhaustive diversion, undoubtedly for less patient readers than me (who admires this encyclopedic style even as I admit its entropic spin) no less than those tiresome touts he skewers on vinyl and rips from celluloid.


Theroux’s knack for character demolition spurs a dizzy audience on: “psuedophilopatristic” flag-waving posers should be “deported on the the first leaking submarine”. This potent caliber of wordy ammunition, for those plunked near Theroux’s full-bore assault, might be easier to endure for a raw recruit than the high-capacity vocabulary bursts shredding his debut novel Darconville’s Cat with rhetorical blow-back. It’s easier to follow his roaring trajectory as he fires away at the detritus of popular culture. As with Estonia, his concentration on real-world targets steadies his aim.


It may be blasting away at two garish plastic fish in a carnival (or casino?) barrel, but who can resist a couple of pot shots? Celine “Dion’s singing reminds me of Thomas Kinkade’s cloying paintings, glowing, over-saturated, commercialized, with every last window lit to lurid effect as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.” Or, “Cher with her gross unmusicality is so bad in virtually everything she sings [sic] validates the assertion that Al-Qaeda leader, the fanatical Puritan Osama bin Laden, makes when he darkly stated that music being played in a house is ‘unethical’.”


For support from more congenial arbiters of taste, Theroux turns not only to Ike Turner for cogent sense, but to Voltaire: “Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung.” Theroux credits Claude Levi-Strauss’ observation. “Music unites the contrary elements of being both intelligible and untranslatable.” Theroux never pauses to fully elucidate the meaning of his book’s title, but true to its subtitle he heaps up evidence. Philip Larkin decries modernism, Ice Cube defies hip-hop consumerism, and NPR denies Christmas reverence, within a few paragraphs. Links between topics may lurk very subtly, but careful perusal reveals them.


From an author so formidably memorious (to borrow from Jorge Luis Borges’ story about Funes), Theroux betrays unease at any challenger to his pugilistic stance. He warns parenthetically: “(Don’t doubt me. I know almost every song ever written, as Marlon Brando’s mother supposedly did.)” He may betray his own joke in the qualifying adverb.


He’s not joking in his final peroration to take his book seriously, however. “Industry tampers with both nature and art—accepts anything—until one ends up, tragically, preferring prints to paintings, eating fast-food instead of home-cooked meals, choosing chop-logic to truth, and aimlessly wandering around department stores looking for something you want to need to buy rather than walking the Cape Cod dunes. If you think this is asking too much, so be it.” Few of us live near him in Massachusetts or a shore for that matter, but we can admire his admonition, in the spirit of his beloved Thoreau, chiding against what “you want to need to buy.”


He concludes, as his novels and essays reliably do, by returning from his digressions and irritations to a steady course set by his moral compass. “I am only asking for a workman’s true art.” Theologically, aesthetically, and argumentatively,  Theroux urges us to contemplate the shoddy present “state of our creative souls”.


Granted, the state of Theroux’s archives and his creative decades of compiling trivia in the pursuit of what his medieval forebears in scholastic erudition classified as the “quadrivia”, a couple of faults must be mentioned. Not nearly as egregious as the copy editing not done by his publisher, Fantagraphics in Laura Warholic, but roughly equivalent to the number in Estonia, errors in a few factoids and typography persist. For example, the quote about Cher, above, includes the author’s [sic], but another bracket might have been added by this reviewer, as Theroux’s sentence lacks revision. For an author so finicky, one wonders if Theroux’s editors are as intimidated by his onslaughts as his discriminating audience. Many proper nouns lack inclusion in the index, which looks as if it meant to list them all.


One last nod to Robert Crumb’s cover image. A schlubby nudnik slumped on the couch peruses the album titled The Beatles; any fan knows how many lines of copy Richard Hamilton’s 1968 cover design compiles. Is this perhaps a cleverly minimal play off of Theroux’s maximal compilation of hundreds of pages of thousands of facts and tens of thousands of opinions?

Rating:

Born in Los Angeles but should have been born in my parental Ireland. Find me at:"Blogtrotter".


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