I’ve been harping on a fair bit lately about Ellen Willis and Paul Nelson, thanks to the terrific recent books (Kevin Avery‘s Nelson bio/compilation comes out in the fall) which have revitalized, in particular, my interest in the period of time in which I first discovered rock criticism — the late ’70s and early ’80s. (Well, sort of. My brother Paul subscribed to Creem from about ’73 onward, and I was more than a little aware of who Lester Bangs was, but the truth is, Bangs mostly reached me back then as a kind of rock star in his own right. It was his reputation and his public shenanigans the ten-year-old me clung to, not the writing itself. I’m not even sure I actually read entire articles by the guy, I just had this vague sense that he was interesting and funny and very, very rock and roll.) I could, and someday may, write an entire book about the years 1979-1982, the years in which entire musical worlds seemed to open before my eyes, and rock criticism was as integral to this self-education as the music itself. And though Willis and Nelson were not the writers I followed most voraciously — maybe, now that I think about it, because they were leaving rock criticism behind right about the time I was becoming a fan of the stuff — they were nevertheless part of a larger framework that intrigued the hell out of me, and that I simply couldn’t get enough of. By “larger framework” I mean something like, folks who waxed serious about rock’s meaning. And by “serious” I mean all sorts of things, not merely serious, dig?
But one of the questions I’m still left with after devouring both books is, what the hell happened in rock criticism as the seventies turned into the eighties? Why did so many of the great early critics decide to get off the boat at that particular juncture? I’m thinking about Marcus’s great Sgt. Pepper riff in his Stranded discography, wherein he calls that much-vaunted masterpiece “a Day-Glo tombstone for its time.” In retrospect, Stranded itself is something of a tombstone, in that more than half its contributors jumped ship at or around that time. Or maybe, to stretch this strained metaphor a bit further, the Janet Maslins and John Rockwells and Langdon Winners actually found their way back to civilization, leaving the Christgaus and Friths and Marcus’s “stranded”? (I don’t know the precise years that rock ceased to be a major public concern for Rockwell, et al.; I’m generalizing here just a tad.) Obviously, Willis and Nelson each had their own ways of dealing with what appears to be their disillusionment with the entire operation: Willis delved deeper into politics and feminism (things which, according to Willis herself, powered her rock writing in the first place), Nelson took a much wobblier course, with fits and starts of various projects (including an endlessly-worked-on and never-completed movie script) leading, ultimately, into near-total retreat from society itself. (Reading the last half of Avery’s bio, I couldn’t help but dredge up some rather uncomfortable visions of Charles Crumb.) But how each of them, and so many of their peers — it’s not an isolated thing I’m talking about here — chose to live out their post-rock critical lives isn’t what I’m thinking about this second. What I’m thinking about is, what made them leave in the first place? Was it simply a function of age? An after-effect of the corporatization of rock journalism? (Marsh has a terrific quote in the Nelson book. In response to Jann Wenner’s installing ratings to Rolling Stone reviews, he says “That’s the death of rock criticism right there.”) Nothing more than a public playing out of the “big chill” effect? (What is the big chill effect? Someone care to remind me?)