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January 10, 1991 - Image 8

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Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1991-01-10

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Page 8- The Michigan Daily-Thursday, January 10, 1991

From trite to excellent: the best of

the rest

by Annette Petruso
second of two parts
"Popular music is a big subject
and it needs to be looked at from a
variety of angles - otherwise you
end up with the three blind men feel-
ing up an elephant. One is in the
front and says it's a snake. One's
feeling a leg and says it's a tree. And
I honestly can't remember what the
one at the other end thought it was.
Because their perspectives were so
narrow and because they weren't
talking to each other, they weren't
able to pool their info and conclude
what they were dealing with was an
elephant...."

Charles Shaar Murray and the

state

of the

"rock

book"

These are the allegorical words of
Charles Shaar Murray, author of
Crosstown Traffic during a phone
interview from his home in London,
discussing the worth of even the
most banal book about popular
music. Crosstown Traffic is
arguably one of the best books on
popular music. Most "rock books"
are pathetically written and tedious.
"There's probably nothing worse
than a bad critical rant because it
doesn't contain useful information.
Where a bad biography can yield a
few bits of information which can be
illuminating to someone who's do-
ing something else. I mean a lot of
the information that I found invalu-
able when writing Crosstown was
information that the people who
originally gathered it plainly didn't
understand," Murray continued.
Murray has a point: even amidst
the worst dramatizations sometimes
shine one or two nuggets of knowl-
edge. But most of the worst books
written on popular music, replete
with those few hidden gems, are on
rock. Jimi Hendrix is the firstfigure
who could be categorized as a rock
(post-1965) star who has received a
good dose of productive analysis in
Murray's Crosstown Traffic. The
Beatles and Elvis have been taken
apart limb by bloody limb many
times, but the best-written books on
popular music focus on various
forms of Black music.
I asked Murray why this seems to
be true. "A lot of the best writing on
music has actually been about jazz
and I would say much of the writing
on Black music, even if it's not
specifically about jazz, has absorbed

something of the more exacting
standards of jazz writing," he said.
"Much of the writing about Black
music, old and new, is rooted in jazz
criticism which means it has to take
a certain amount of social history
and a certain amount of musical
knowledge."
"When you are talking about
lives of Black musicians or Black
artists in any sphere, the author has
to at some level deal with the prob-
lems that these people have con-
fronted with specifically because
they are Black. In other words, they
have to deal with a very rough ride
from society which in itself affects
their lives and work. And to write
with integrity about artists like this,
you have to examine this aspect of
their lives which in turn means the
author has to do more than have a
large pile of cuttings to hand," he
continued.
Relatively, the sociological im-
plications for white artists seems
obvious. The trashy recounting of
the daily existence of an arena rock
band's life, without looking at the
music or the artist's background or
the band's audience, makes for obvi-
ous it-all-sounds-the-same-how-
many-groupies-did-he-fuck? kind of
book. No matter what kind of white
rock-type band it is, it seems to be
next to impossible to write a good
book about an artist who is still ac-
tive and has been around less than
about 15 or 20 years. The first
books about an artist nowadays are
usually published during their career,
to take advantage of their popularity,
and are tailored to fans (like those of
New Kids on the Block). The infor-
mation - there is generally little
critical analysis - quickly becomes
old news. These books contain few
pieces of information that might be
useful to future critical authors.
A definite problem for authors is
keeping up with current music Rap
is a good example and Murray ex-
plained why.
"It's also that rap is changing so
much. There's a bit in the book
(Crosstown Traffic), if you want to
check out what the Black underclass
are listening to, you need to be lis-
tening to Run D.M.C. and L.L.
Cool J. Well, in terms of what's
currently happening in rap those
guys are ancient history," he said.
Neither extinction or longevity
guarantee good books; neither of
those artists nor genres such as disco
and heavy metal have been written

The Village People were downright wierd yet catchy for their time, a
twist on disco that even rollerskaters loved. Yet no one has ever written
on critical book on them and their music and influence.

about in an a successful critical fash-
ion to date. Considering how much
disco has influenced current trends in
popular music among such groups
as Deee-Lite and Adamski, this
seems wrong. What did the role
playing and play on conventional
life of the Village People mean as
well as their musical statements?
Heavy metal is still a viable force
today, with some of its more famous
stars, like Aerosmith and Ozzy Os-
bourne, proving as popular as the
Rolling Stones and the Who. While
these groups have surpassed their
peak, they remain influential.
Murray said he thinks one reason
heavy metal is not critically analyzed
might be the prejudices which exist
within the publishing industry. "I
don't think publishers believe heavy
metal fans can read. They're just
convinced these people don't buy
books and people who do buy books
don't want to read about this stuff,"
he said.
"Same for rap," he continued.
"On one level rap and metal are the
most interesting sub-genres around. I
was told that twenty-five, no forty
percent of all album sales in the
U.S. at the moment are of records
that can be classified as metal, so

it's a huge market. So where are the
books about Van Halen and Guns
'N' Roses? Where are the books
about Public Enemy and 2 Live
Crew? They ain't there because the
publishers think the people who
support that music don't read books
or buy books."
Another reason certain types of
artists get more written about them
is that they were at their height dur-
ing the mythical '60s, a decade
widely covered. The artists and kinds
of music that were the most popular
and/or most respected were either
Black, like Motown, Stax and other
soul types, or influenced greatly by
Black music such as the blues or
R&B, like the Rolling Stones, the
Doors and the Beatles. The genera-
tion that grew up with that music
now controls the economic forces of
society and publishers believe they
would be more likely to buy books
on these artists.
Murray said, "One reason is for
'60s fetishes, the analysis was its
boomers who have the money. It's
like people who are seriously into,
say, Public Enemy don't necessarily
buy books, they buy records. There
are books about and/orby James
Brown, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles,
Mary Wilson's Supremes book,

Miles Davis, B.B. King, these Black
artists are the subject- of books and
the reason is that publishers think
there is a readership out there who
will buy this book. I don't know if
publishers would be convinced that
there would be a market for a book,
say, about 2 Live Crew."
But even if the artist is from said
idolized decade, it does not guarantee
a book will come out that will do
his or her career or influence justice.
Take for example The Rolling
Stones: the latest book about them,
A.E. Hotchner's Blown Away: The
Rolling Stones and the Death of the
'60s, rehashes the same tragedies,
Mick Jagger's arrogance and how
Jagger and Keith Richards pushed
Brian Jones out of the band. Hotch-
ner interviewed such Stones "friends"
as Marianne Faithful and Ian Stewart
and used quotes to tell their version
of what really happened.
Murray said Hotchner's attitude
towards certain people's lifestyles de-
tracted from the book. "I think he is
a horrible old sexist and his com-
ments about Anita Pallenberg and
Marianne Faithful are an old sex-
ist's.... I thought he seemed censo-
rious towards women he seemed to
think hadn't lived the way they
'should have done."' Hotchner
doesn't talk about the music, just
how the Stones' rise and peak af-
fected the band and a few others' life.
The problem with most books on
rock artists, even those from the
'60s, are they are usually limited to
straight biographies. Biographies,
unlike some books on Black genres
of music, don't look at these artists
in the context of their musical
movement or try to make new com-
parisons. Authors like Peter Gural-
nick, Gerri Hirshey and Nelson
George have written books which
critically analyze R&B, Motown and
other parts of Black music in a
provocative and productive fashion.
The reader learns something more
than who was fucking whom.
Murray said he thinks the prob-
lem could have something to do
with the style of journalism em-
ployed. "Much of the writing about
white pop and rock stars seems to
have its roots in very conventional
celebrity journalism.... It's like an
article in People magazine which is
somehow gotten grotesquely bloated
out to four hundred pages," he said.
A prime example of this phe-
nomenon is Stephan Davis' biogra-
phy of Led Zeppelin, Hammer of the

Gods: the Led Zeppelin Saga whic
sensationalizes the entire careerp
the band. Davis seems critical of ep
at many points, especially when dis-
cussing their lifestyle on the road,
yet, simultaneously, he seems to oy
joy their music, for the most part.
He makes excuses for his judg
ments as he sees fit. His objectivity
is sporadic; Hammer of the Gods
could have been serialized in Th
National Enquirer.
"And these rumors (about Zep be
ing dangerous to groupie's life)
weren't even so bad, considerig
Southern California, 1968," Davis
writes. "Nixon in the White Houe;
genocide in Vietnam; Charles Ma-
son out in Death Valley, frustrated
by the music business, waiting to
send one of his rat patrols of fieL
hippies into Beverly Hills to kii
record producers and chop them y.
These were witchy times. Led Zp-
pelin's antics were merely the sadi4r
tic little games of young Engli4p
artists loose in the United Sta$s
with dirty minds and unlimited re-
sources. They set an unattainalg
standard of depravity, mystique, l-
ury, and excess for the rock bans
that tried to follow them, but by tl
cold light of day they were all really
nice gentlemen.
Not only is the grammar atro-
cious, this paragraph is exemplaryf
the value judgements that predont
inate in the book. These judgements
don't convey anything critical about
the music or, for that matter, supply
any facts about the band.
Straight biographies of musician
don't have to be this condescending
or uninformative, but they don't a l
have to be Crosstown Traffic
either. "I'm not suggesting even foir
a moment that the way that I wrote
Crosstown is the only way to write
a book on popular music or populr
culture," Murray said.;"a
"It was what worked for the
agenda I had and the subject I hal.
And if it hadn't been for a lot f
books written differently, I wouldit
have had the raw information which
enabled me to do my job.... But p
the other hand biographies like.
David Ritz's Divided Soul about
Marvin Gaye, take a very classical,
biographer's approach, are useful'in.
illuminating. It's all down to the
how, not the what. You can write
virtually any kind of book, from oralS
history to the conventional biogra-
phy to the critical rant, and a good
one is a good one and a bad one''
bad"
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