“Don’t believe in Goldman / His kind like a curse / Instant karma’s gonna get him / If I don’t get him first”
—U2, “God Part II”
The late Albert Goldman certainly had a love-hate relationship with rock ‘n’ roll culture. Born in 1927, he was in his forties by the time rock ‘n’ roll culture fully bloomed in the late 1960s. Thus, unlike rock critics like Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh who were contemporaries of the nascent rock ‘n’ roll artists, Goldman’s perspective was very much the cynical and sceptical outsider. An objective assessment of Goldman’s critical work is always a losing proposition due to the controversial nature of his unflattering biographies on Elvis Presley and John Lennon, two of rock ‘n’ roll’s most revered icons. He remained a peripheral university lecturer in popular culture at Columbia and freelance columnist on pop music for various publications (essays collected in the book under review) for much of his professional life.
Freakshow—the very title is a pointed reminder of Goldman’s unique outlook on rock ‘n’ roll culture. In his preface, he justifies his use of the title accordingly:—‘I like that word. Its ambivalent charge of affection and contempt, its forbidden frankness and disarming familiarity make it a token of this era’s queer spirit and the flaming creatures it has hatched.’ As a professor of comparative literature and a rock journalist, Goldman provides a studied and condescending approach to an emotional, highly subjective topic. This is evident from the get-go when Goldman attempts (as all academics deem it essential) to define the volatile concept of ‘rock’.
In “The Emergence of Rock”, Goldman traces the roots of rock ‘n’ roll to 1954—the first broadcast of Negro race records to a white audience by disc jockey Alan Freed. By the end of an absorbing piece, Goldman concludes that rock acts ‘like a magnet, drawing into its field a host of heterogeneous materials that has fallen quickly into patterns. No other cultural force in modern times has possessed its power of synthesis’. Goldman had offered as proof of this assertion, the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band still fresh when the column was penned. Goldman’s admiration of the Beatles is confirmed with his statement that ‘if John Lennon were to sit down with John Cage about music, one wonders who would come away the wiser’.
Goldman proceeds to attack a variety of pop cultural issues in his various columns under the headings “Rock”; “Sick Jew Black Humor”; “Jazz: The Art That Came In From the Cold” and “Sex Pop Psych Scene”.
In “Rock”, Goldman spotlights the icons of the era viz. The Who’s Tommy—which meets with Goldman’s approval for its assimilation of the classical operatic format; James Brown; Little Richard; Jimi Hendrix and Paul Butterfield. Most of his subjects get favourable nods from Goldman for their aesthetic and musical attributes. Under the sub-heading “Nostalgia”, Goldman laments the gaudy white jump suit attire of the Vegas Elvis; judges Abbey Road as a mixed bag; writes off the Nashville Skyline redux Dylan; comes down hard on bubblegum; ponders the Nazi symbolism of the decadent Stones and regrets the deaths of Hendrix and Janis Joplin. These pieces highlight Goldman’s wholesome adoption of a Spenglerian outlook of culture. That even as the early 1960s charted the ‘emergence’ of rock, the changing of the decade would mark its inevitable descent.
The rest of Freakshow finds Goldman pontificating on topics seemingly closer to home e.g. the rise of Jewish comedy in the hands of Lenny Bruce, Philip Roth and Mel Brooks; the resurrection of jazz led by Charlie Parker, Theolonious Monk and John Coltrane and the sexual impact of pop culture. Each is given the full Goldman treatment—fervent discourse with disaffected evaluation though these subjects are not as colourful and controversial given Goldman’s special relationship with rock ‘n’ roll and thus are not quite as interesting as Goldman’s views on rock.
As noted earlier in this review, Goldman the pop culture critic is very much the outsider. There are times he attempts to impose old world views on the nascent rock culture, he appears to be overly keen to debunk rock’s significance and is too impressed when rock artists venture into territories nearer to his own definition of art. Perhaps as noted in the “Nostalgia” segment much of this attitude is derived from a personal disappointment with the perceived development (or lack) of the craft of the revered rock icons. His writing style can be a tad high brow and pretentious, addressing as he does like-minded intellectuals with descriptions like—‘Yet when he opens up his guitar in long liquid lines of electronic song, he conjures up visions of an artificial bird singing in the gardens of a Byzantine emperor’—a incongruous comparison for the guitar-playing talents of the Doors’ Robbie Krieger.
Still, there is much to appreciate and learn from Goldman’s writing. It is his distinctive perspective that allows a balance to come into play, especially when examining the oft-sycophantic ramblings of younger writers. Rather than considering him a heretic of sorts, Goldman tempered his obvious passion with academic demands—these writings bear this out. Whilst some of the relevance of the subject matters may be passé, one cannot ignore the depth of understanding that Goldman possessed and conveyed. Rock is not as black and white as Goldman wanted it to be but then again it is not totally grey. Freakshow may be a bit too harsh for slighter sensibilities, think of it more as a carnival, a fun fair and everything will be kosher.