Scott’s Bookshelf, Part 6

Trudging along with this feature, ever so slowly…

36. Songs They Never Play on the Radio: Nico, the Last Bohemian (James Young) – Another one in the haven’t-read-it-but-would-like-to pile. From what I gather it’s a tour diary (written by the guy who played keyboards with Nico throughout the ’80s) with many episodes of wanton drug use. Truthfully, not really my idea of a good time. And yet… every review I’ve read suggests that it’s much more intelligent than my no doubt reductive encapsulation suggests.

37. Rock and the Pop Narcotic: Testament for the Electric Church (Vol. 1) (Joe Carducci) – Compelling, hard-to-put-down screed, in which every good argument is undercut by thrice as many ridiculous claims (“no gay synthesizers used in the making of this book!”), though even at that — even at its most ignorant and small-minded — there’s thrust and humour in Carduccci’s words (it probably helps if you care about the SST/Forced Exposure milieu he comes out of; me, not so much). I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the central (or anyway, the strongest) argument in the book — that rock requires a serious, rigorous, and formally descriptive analysis — is more of a moot point now than it was at the time of the book’s publication, 1990. I mean, I can’t prove this one way or the other, but my hunch is that there’s been something of a swing in rock criticism in the last few years towards what I suppose you could call a formalist or perhaps “musicological” approach. Maybe it’s just the publications I read — which, truth be told, are less often “publications” than blogs or chat rooms — but if anything I’d say the pendulum has swung further in that direction — towards describing how music sounds and sometimes even getting quite technical about this — and further away from the socio-politico-logical/what-does-it-all-signify-? approach that Carducci gets in such a tizzy about (devotes an entire chapter to it, in fact). Assuming I’m not completely talking out my hat here, it might not be too far-fetched to attribute at least some of this shift in critical priorities to RATPN. Well, maybe, maybe not, but let’s just say the argument, and the way he stated it, definitely had a strong pull on me at the time, and probably even made me feel a bit guilty in the process; I just assume I’m not alone in this, but who knows? (I’ve never seen the follow-up edition, by the way.)

38. The Aesthetics of Rock
39. Holes: A Book Not Entirely About Golf
40. The Night (Alone) (Richard Meltzer)
I’d been aware of Aesthetics long before its 1987 reprint, but whenever I perused the copy on my brother’s shelf, the thing freaked me out a little. None of the photo captions made any sense, half of the people in the photos were completely obscure, and what was with that “Surfin’ Bird” quote at the beginning anyway? The rest of the book was an impenetrable scrawl that may not have been written in English as far as my dimly-lit-bulb of a brain could discern at the time (I’m talking pre-and-early teens here). It would take me umpteen-thousand words to explain how Aesthetics did end up as one of my all-time faves and I make no bold claims to “get” most of it (like any great work of art, I like to think of it as a work-in-progress sort of thing), but I think what first drew me in when I actually sat down to read the thing was Meltzer’s voice, the way he one minute convinces you he’s telling you the most revelatory detail ever and how the next minute he’s convinced you it’s all a cosmic piss-take; the ideas themselves followed from that. As Rich Manglesdorff put it in his Rolling Stone review in 1970, Meltzer is “simultaneously brilliant and full of shit, informative and a put-on, ungodly rational and stone mad.” This sort of balancing act, for whatever reason, holds great appeal to me, and it’s the same kind of balancing act that has long made me gravitate towards Marshall McLuhan, whose writing (which I discovered around ’84, a couple years prior to reading Meltzer) in many ways prepared me for the onslaught of ideas and jokes and footnotes and Papa-Oom-Mow-Mowisms that punctuate Aesthetics… Haven’t read the other two titles listed here, but I plan to. My reading of Meltzer has not been limited to his music books — there are others ahead in this survey — but I’ve just never gotten around to these two in particular (the golf one looks like it’ll take about an hour to read — so what am I waiting for?).

41. Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music (Greil Marcus) – A collection of columns from a crucial period in Marcus’s writing — a B-side to Lipstick Traces — and a crucial period in my own listening, and hence, probably my favourite of his books (the fact that it’s a compilation is also telling; I’ve had difficulty with his more recent sprawling works). Here’s Marcus in his Introduction responding — perhaps? — to Carducci, whose book was published just a couple years earlier: “I wrote about a good deal as punk that to other people was not punk at all, stuff that sullied the very purity of the concept — anything from Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk to Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ to a Bruce Springsteen career move to David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet to a particularly bizarre rendition of Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’ — not because to me punk is an attitude more than a musical style, but because I think it is infinitely more than a musical style, period.” It’s that declaration of “infinitely more than” that ultimately endears me more to Marcus’s approach to this stuff than it does to Carducci’s, if for no other reason than that Marcus’s approach can encompass Carducci’s approach but the opposite by definition can never be true; Carducci is too often hemmed in by his own purism (not to say that he doesn’t derive a certain amount of energy from that).

42. Frank Zappa’s Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play (Ben Watson) – Given my propensity for McLuhan and Meltzer, you might think I’d leap at the chance to read what I assume is some sort of rock critic equivalent of The Illuminatus Trilogy, but I’ve yet to be overcome by the urge to delve in. I have, however, flipped through much of the “Postfix to the Fourth Edition” section, which is 24 pages of the author responding (almost entirely negatively) to reviews of the very book you are reading (“that’s the point of the whole book, numbskull!” Watson berates one lowly reviewer). Strange. It’s at once an act of almost unimaginable self-indulgence as well as an opportunity for the author to clarify his work, or to keep the coversation going. Nowadays we have blogs for this sort of thing.

2 thoughts on “Scott’s Bookshelf, Part 6

  1. If you still haven’t read it, give Songs They Never Play… a go. Yes, it’s very sad but it’s also touching and really funny.

  2. Songs they never play on the radio (why renamed for the U.S.) is one of the great rock books.

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