[29 September 2011]
Chuck Eddy. Is there anyone who has written about music over the last few decades who manages to be so brilliantly contrary? To write with such cauterizing, strident and beautiful prose? To be so unrepentedly full of bullshit?
Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism will convince you that the answer is no. This collection pulls together around 100 essays, reviews and occasional pieces by this mad genius and former Village Voice music editor known for his early, incisive writing on New Wave, his rants against “indie” music and his unlikely appreciation of pop country constructs like Toby Keith and Montgomery Gentry.
You’ll find some of the most insightful and revealing rock-crit you’ve ever read, here. There’s a short piece on the Flaming Lips self-titled debut that sums up the early work and promise of Wayne Coyne and his fellow masters of psychedelic dreamland rock. In “Def Leppard’s Magic and Loss”, Eddy hangs out with Joe Elliot and Phil Collen around the time Adrenalized appeared and in the aftermath of the band’s series of bizarre tragedies that still left them fusing big hair metal with rhythm and blues like nobody else. Its movingly written and, best of all, we learn that “Pour Some Sugar On Me” on me was inspired by Elliot’s love of the 1969 hit “Sugar, Sugar” the bubblegum classic of fictional band “The Archie’s”.
Rock and Roll Always Forgets also features a long piece on AC/DC that is perhaps the best exposition of the band I’ve ever read. The book includes an essay/interview with the Pet Shop Boys that completely captures that band’s authentic phoniness, their desire, to paraphrase Eddy, of only taking their own version of integrity seriously.
In another piece, Eddy maybe sums up good music circa 1984 when he claims that “West End Girls” is “All the Young Dudes” for the mall generation. Nailed it.
There’s a recent piece from 2003 that explains the weird dynamic of The White Stripes. This obviously feels more than a little elegiac, now. But I can’t get enough of Eddy’s description of how Jack White’s love of the blues has helped create the band’s “hostile boogies…deliberate, all evil boll-weevil eight-bar Geroge Thorogood have-love-will-travel backdoorman jellyroll prowess.” This is classic writing and exposition at its best and most insightful.
Some of these pieces are classic for a different reason. They are just plain dumb. Actually, they are not “plain” dumb. They are exotically dumb, fascinatingly dumb, Einstein on a whisky and barbiturate cocktail and scribbling stuff on a napkin dumb. Eddy is irritating dumbness you can’t ignore because it comes in the form of strikingly and oddly written pieces of critical craftsmanship.
Eddy’s writing about the death of Kurt Cobain is a prime example. This piece, written soon after the grunge bard’s suicide, set out to infuriate the cult of Cobain. It succeeds by being mean and nasty, funny and iconoclastic and ends on a note of near imbecility.
OK, fine, make a joke about how the world would be better place if Lou Reed had killed himself after White Light/White Heat and then suggest that maybe Cobain did us a favor. Whatever, dude. We get it, no pious sanctimony and Keatsian “in memoriam of the dead boy-god” for you.
Having at least scored some serious shock value points, Eddy goes on to say a series of stupid things. He complains that he can’t locate the blues standard “In the Pines”, played by Cobain at his now famous MTV Unplugged appearance. I only have four different versions of it and am listening to it right now on The Legend of Lead Belly Everest Tradition album.
Then Eddy suggests that Dave Grohl is a bad drummer (he doesn’t actually use Grohl’s name when he takes this swipe) and wonders aloud about why people think the lyrics on Nevermind contain so much sarcasm. Oh yes, and In Utero isn’t great but had “some cool guitar parts.”
Is this guy serious?
Yes, and we see the roots of his irritating contrariness in his description of his own early encounter with music. He was a guy who fell and fell hard for early Elvis Costello and started writing about music almost as soon as he started listening to it seriously. He ended up rejecting Costello for reasons that are unclear to the reader and following a path that took him through hair metal (he’s an inveterate Poison lover) to Mexican rock to avant garde jazz to, well, mainstream country, to …who knows what…almost everything?
Actually, maybe what we learn about Eddy doesn’t explain where the hell he’s coming from and he remains the mystery of mysteries, a crazed rock crit version of the Oracle of Delphi sputtering wisdom and nonsense all at once.
And I’m thinking some pop culture vultures who haven’t met his work will love him. The counterintuitive assertion from a smartass (emphasis on smart) has its appeal. It can sound not just correct but prophetic. It sometimes even points out those places where the orthodoxy has turned like milk left in a hot car.
Take for example the fact that he may have been the first critic to praise Sonic Youth, way back in the early ‘80s before it became de rigueur to praise Sonic Youth to keep your rock snob union card. Or, take a piece he wrote in 1987 for the Village Voice rightfully commending the work of John Cougar Mellencamp and describing his “Scarecrow “ as giving him the “closest thing to a spiritual experience” he’s ever had.
Now, sure, everybody today recognizes Mellencamp as a real-live, rootin-tootin roots rocker, his stuff produced by living deity of musical authenticity T-Bone Burnett. But Eddy was saying this in fucking 1987 man, when everybody still called him John Cougar and had “Hurts so Good” ringing in their ears.
Now, most of the time, Eddy is just making shit up. And, it’s hard not to admire his ability to construct an alternative universe. He’s that guy smart enough to get away with outrageous claims because you know that almost any argument you try to ward him with will be demolished in a freaking torrent of indisputable, disconnected and largely irrelevant, fact. And in every essay, Eddy indeed puts on a clinic, displaying his encyclopedic mastery of the history of rock ‘n’ roll and of music itself.
At the end of the day, you’ll wake from your trance and realize that, wait a second, Poison’s second album is not better than Houses of the Holy and that Sergeant Pepper is not “pompous mush.” But, while he’s talking, he’s as convincing as any schizophrenic who’s constructed his own private, illusory kingdom with its own laws and possibilities, all of which make sense on their own terms. Crenellated sandcastles of irrationality.
Its hard to take seriously the critic who literally damns an indie group like Grizzly Bear as utterly worthless while suggesting that redneck thrush Mindy McCready was “driven, ravished, and marinated in the vinegar of Stevie Nicks.” Then you remember there are a hundred reasons that you have no choice but to take him seriously.
What is most astonishing is how much verbiage goes into defending the indefensible sounds that leaked and dribbled out of country radio in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. He does this while issuing a wholesale condemnation of lo-fi and really all of Sub Pop’s children and grandchildren.
He then proceeds to mount an apologetic for people who are not actual musicians, the likes of Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney and the whole hat-wearing twang-gang. Obviously ,these hick heartthrobs are publicists creations whose overproduced garbage is to Cash, Haggard and Kristofferson as Muzak is to, well, music. But Eddy writes about Shock-in Ya’ll (hurts my head to write that) like its Led Zeppelin IV. He does this while rightfully disdaining Keith’s brainless jingoism but still…arggghhhh!
See what I mean? Chuck Eddy makes you mad.
So why bother with him at all? Hipster scribe Chuck Klosterman writes a fulsome introduction to this collection and says it better than I could. Klosterman credits some of Eddy’s early work on metal (Eddy wrote the classic and indispensable Stairway to Hell) as inspiring his own classic Fargo Rock City. Klosterman probably phrases it best when he says that his experience of reading Eddy was like “some brilliant weirdo was talking directly to me, yet with no regard whatsoever for how much I enjoyed the conversation.”
For that reason, I’m highly recommending this collection. You can’t know music criticism unless you know Chuck Eddy. I’m going to try and read every infuriating thing the guy’s ever written, tracking down his books and all the bits and pieces not collected here. I’ll probably be angry the whole time.
On a side note that’s not really a side note, let me give a word of praise for Duke University Press. University presses are real torchbearers for the printed word when it seems like no one gives a shit, anymore. And they publish work that, while unlikely to have a very wide commercial appeal, has to be available to smart people who love good books. Even when those smart books drive you fucking crazy.
Buy this book. But try to get it in a soft cover edition. You’ll be throwing it against a wall. A lot.