Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. Edited by Greil Marcus. Knopf. $12.95, $5.95 paper.
Up and Down With the Rolling Stones. By Tony Sanchez. Morrow. $17.95, $8.95 paper.
Far from celebrating rock and roll's vaunted - and wholly artful - primitivism, these two new books are remarkable instead for the (largely unconscious) ease with which each celebrates the surprisingly conventional nature of rock and roll culture. Not that the guts have gone out of the backbeat, mind you; I don't mean for a moment to suggest, even sardonically, that a rhetoric of crisis or a lament for authenticity intrudes in either book. No, what links Tony Sanchez's Up and Down with the Rolling Stones with Greil Marcus's collection of original essays by 20 of the country's best pop critics - and what separates both books from outmoded raps about rock's ties to the '60s and its precarious status in an age of conformity - is a sense of rock and roll and its allied technologies as regular, coherent, even lawful. A good thing, too, since today the music is in unprecedented health, and only a style of criticism that looks beyond the ideology of the Waste Land has any chance of apprehending rock as it moves into the 1980s.
Sanchez's gonzo memoir of life with the Rolling Stones is a stone riot, a trifle lightweight at first glance, but ultimately riveting for anyone who loves rock and roll. Ornery reviewers may have a case when they complain, as some have, about Sanchez's lack of attention to the Stones's music (his memory of Brian Jones's love for Elmore James early in the book is the only real exception). But what fascinates Sanchez is the same backstage life that fascinates any Stones fan; his book is a fiesta for rock-and-roll yentas.
A gofer for the Stones since their early days, Sanchez seems to have satisfied most of his ambitions through his intimacy with Keith, Mick, and, as he reminds us more than once, Marianne Faithfull; it's a satisfaction that apparently survives the humiliating errands and other services he had to perform for Keith-steady Anita Pallenberg as well as the head Stones themselves. The suicide scandal in Anita's bedroom last July had its plain roots in 12 years of cheap thrills that Sanchez helped orchestrate, and orchestrates again as he rewrites the past from the tranquility of post-addiction care.
Interestingly enough, however, Sanchez's persona exudes an uncanny integrity throughout the decidedly foul proceedings and seems to owe its credibility, both for Sanchez and for us, to his early history and enduring self-image as a hardboiled nightclub man. In fact, Sanchez's style of identity is little more than a rock-and-roll variation on the professional journeyman we know from, say, Howard Hawks or Raymond Chandler. Such implicit mythologies inform Sanchez's notion of himself from the start, and just as compellingly as the more central myth of the rock star proper informs the grander and more troubled characters of Jagger and the rest, not only from an outsider's point of view, but even, one is forced to conclude, from within.
This is surely to romanticize Sanchez and the whole sleazy business of the Stones' supposedly private lives. But romance, after all, is a precondition of the genre and should remind us that rock and roll's very allure lies in the overt mythmaking that is essential to its speech. Hence Sanchez's book turns on a joke that is precisely - and maybe not unwittingly - the point. For there is, after all, no "inside story" to speak of (despite the subtitle) since the "inside" is no more than the story of a story, just as regulated by manners and conventions as the music is. Does it have to be argued that the Stones have been fashioned by the same conventions that fashion their fans? Sanchez's book is less the revelation of things hitherto unknown than it is the calculated filling in of particular details, names, and places in the mythic structure of Stones life as we already imagine it.
Like the music and the scene, rock criticism is a pensee sauvage, funky on the surface but girded underneath by ineluctable regularities. In fact, it's even more disingenuous about its own powerful determinations than the music is, perhaps because its determinations are even more tangled. After all, the criticism, as everyone knows with varying degrees of pleasure, is drenched not only in the music and hip culture, but also in the academic languages that have trained most rock critics to one degree or another. The defensive custom that accompanies the training, however, is the obligatory put-down of analysis itself - a denigration that closes many of the essays in Greil Marcus's Stranded collection, and turns out to be just as conventional as the intellection it (polemically) abjures.
One reason for the primitive pose, of course, is that it's a strategy that allows rock criticism to rip off the vocabulary of high culture in the act of challenging it. In so doing, however, rock criticism also - and ironically - reproduces the very ideology of the high culture from which it supposedly flees. After all, the notion that the authority of rock and roll - and of literature, for that matter, in the high-culture version - issues from its privileged access to a plenitude of natural, spontaneous, quasi-divine energy ignores the real sources of its energy, which in both cases is social. This confusion persists despite rock criticism's particular - and heavily compromised - mission to valorize the achievements of mass culture instead.
Of course, the separation of high and pop cultures is untenable in any case, since the domain of high culture is, in practice, no more elitist in its critical or creative procedures than rock and roll. What blinds us to the continuity is that high culture (like a good deal of rock criticism) customarily mystifies and idealizes the humble tinkerings of the poet, painter, or critic in order to keep his priesthood and its divinity somehow segregated from the mass, a project it pursued with the greatest (because overcompensatory) energy in its "modernist" moment.
Marcus more than grazed the problem of rock and roll ideology in his 1975 Mystery Train, and it turns out to have focused his new book around similar concerns (how consciously at the outset it is hard to tell) by asking his writers to choose a single rock and roll LP for sustenance on the proverbial desert island. But as Marcus himself implies in his preface, the conceit is more interesting as a symptom than as a pure act of imagination perhaps because the resonant figure of exile that underlies it gives away the peculiar need the desert-island routine is designed to fill - the need to maintain rock culture as a graphic culture apart, and so endow it with a whole mythology of modernist isolation (remember Martin Decoud on his desert island in Nostromo?) that makes it not just adversary but also - and alas - solipsistic.
This is the usual contradiction, since the modernist and high-culture stance of the exiled, isolated, privileged individual is especially incommensurate with the qualities of mass culture that rock criticism means to celebrate as a form. (Antagonism to the dominant culture has, of course, its political roots as well, although here, too, we're thrown back on an ideological, hence rhetorical, paradox of "vanguardism" in the service of the mass - Marxism, too, as symptomatic modernism - as well as a misreading of Anglo-American High Modernism in particular, in which technical revolution has been mistakenly supplemented in some quarters, e.g. Joni Mitchell, with an impossible political counterpart).
In many ways, rock itself forgot all this in the '60s, and then progressively recovered from the lapse as the '70s proceeded. In the criticism, however, the split remains largely intact, as it were, a rifted enterprise whose contours emerge in Marcus's title and persist throughout the book in a rather strict way, despite the apparent disarray created by his critics' wide choice of eras and artists. (Bands and artists range, by the way, from early rock-and-roll groups like the Ronettes and the Five Royales to seminal p--ks like the Velvets, the New York Dolls, and the Ramones, with stops in between at Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, the Eagles, Jackosn Browne, and the Kinks.)
John Rockwell's essay on Linda Ronstadt displays the kind of tension that gives almost all the essays their peculiar energy and shared ground; it oscillates violently between a profoundly technical and a profoundly personal assessment of Ronstadt's singing. Now a musicologist, now just a pal, Rockwell even tends to rediscover the structure of his own argument in the structure of his subject - for like his prose, Ronstadt's music also "embraces strongly articulated alternatives." The rhetoric that organizes the book is thus regular in its irregularity, the modernist appeal to personal authenticity and direct feeling alternating with a postmodern appeal to contingency, preconditions, context.
If M. Mark, for example, argues in her essay on Van Morrison that he sings "about the pursuit of direct emotional response" and about "recovering innocence," she insists at the same time that he sings with a voice tutored in sources, burdened by forms. This latter quality would seem to deny Mark's former contention, since quest for immediacy is, strictly speaking, doomed in a world that is largely inherited. And yet the energy of Mark's self-divided argument is never dissipated by the contradiction, even when she attempts to resolve the differences by claiming that Morrison does so himself. Indeed, the discovery of Morrison's source packs a relish all its own, especially when Mark cites "Mustang Sally" as the resolving text for the "huh's" in Van's phrasing. And just as in Rockwell's essay, the split in Mark's prose between a rhetoric of natural feeling and a rhetoric that acknowledges the pressures of craft and history is replicated in the split between images of ripe nature and images of (even hot) circuitry in Morrison's own lyrics.
Simon Frith's essay (the only one by a British critic) helps to focus and magnify the defining split or contradiction in Mark and Rockwell by identifying the central preoccupation of the Stones' Beggars Banquet according to the customary terms. What Frith calls the Stones' "acute, almost contemptuous grasp of their own paradoxes" is best expressed in their album's title, which Frith reads as an oxymoron that poises isolation against community - natural self against society - only a little less exactly than Exile on Main Street will a few years later on.
Hence, too, the opposites that structure Jim Miller's image of Phil Spector. Spector's "aesthetic of excess," Miller argues, allows us to "unpack . . . the litter of his imagination," that grabbag of American odds and ends gathered all the way from Harlem to the Brill Building. But despite its public contents, the net effect of Spector's art is "an obsessive - and unlikely - solipsism." Miller's definition of the thrill of rock and roll listening - "the first time, again" - dramatizes in a single phrase the impossibility of modernist immediacy in the face of repetitions, copies, imitations, all those manifest characteristics of pop culture that stand against the privileged individual and put him in question. Ariel Swartley even chooses a favorite deconstructive figure of speech (wittingly?) to describe the unevenness of these discordant mythologies as they appear in Bruce Springsteen, and so provides us with an exact image for the rhetoric of rock criticism, too. "It's not like the songs lay out in neatly knitted metaphors," says Swartley. "One tug and they're unravelled."
Not everybody, of course, is so balanced or even in the oscillations between rhetorical alternatives. Paul Nelson oohs and aahs about Jackson Browne on the basis of some murky personal logic that doubles (and deserves) Browne's own, while Grace Lichtenstein's essay on the Eagles is almost entirely dependent on a notion of rock and roll as a record of one's personal associations to particular songs and singers. Langdon Winner, by contrast, leans the other way in a resolute attempt to find music that is utterly devoid of public or social references (his choice of artist, fittingly enough, is the wacked Captain Beefheart), whose only real referents are other texts. Although a modernist/isolationist wish-fulfillment to begin with, Winner's discussion of Beefheart's desire "to disconnect and reorder things" actually magnifies rock and roll's thoroughly public musical heritage as well as its "inherited store of fantasies" that together cancel any possibility of "authentic voice."
Ellen Willis's essay on Lou Reed is more bifurcated than either Rockwell's or Miller's. Reed, says Willis, once again (re)discovering the ideology of rock criticism in its subject, embodies "a fateful connection between two seemingly disparate ideas - the rock-and-roller as self-conscious aesthete and the rock-and-roller as self-conscious punk." By implication magnifying the disparity already at work between high culture solipsism and mass culture sociability, Reed's "use of a mass art form," as Willis puts it, "to express his aesthetic and social alienation" brings the paradox to a pointed head.
But while Willis seems willing to live with the contradictory ideal of the aesthete-punk, she suddenly decides that the uneven pose is "a metaphor for transcendence" as though there really were a telos or end to interpretation that would resolve, unify, centralize Reed's requisite oppositions after all. Indeed, in an astonishing lapse into existential trivializing, Willis touts Reed's "nakedness" and the "glimmer of redemption" it provides, even though both contradict her earlier ironic notion of Reed's identity as an odd and uneasy ensemble of gears and different parts - a set of differences that are definitive rather than dialectical.
It is above all the Ramones who have opened up the post-modern arena of ironic edge that the music itself now occupies and Tom Carson maps the terrain with considerable lucidity in his essay on the Ramones' Rocket to Russia: "More than any other band they had defined the music in its purest terms, a return to the basics which was both deliberately primitive and revisionist at the same time, a musical and lyrical bluntness of approach which concealed a wealth of complex, disengaging ironies underneath." Carson's sense of irony well summarizes what is often only implicit in the volume's other essays, and well summarizes the ironies that define rock and roll itself.
Originally published in The Village Voice, January 21, 1980