Getting Respectable 

There are good reasons why rock ’n’ roll journalism should be taken seriously

There are good reasons why rock ’n’ roll journalism should be taken seriously

Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, the Oscar-winning popular and critical success whose most engaging character may well have been the semi-ranting, semi-incendiary Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), gave many music reviewers pause: How had their field, which in its Bangsian days seemed as revolutionary and transgressive as rock ’n’ roll itself, become not only a standard of mainstream journalism, but also an integral—and highly profitable—aspect of the corporate and academic cultures against which rock had rebelled in the first place?

For example, Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay: An Anthology ($35, 800 pp.), which appeared last fall almost simultaneously with Almost Famous, comes to you from W.W. Norton, a publishing house known to former English majors by their oddly truncated—and very thick—compilations of various literary genres and periods. Norton Anthologies are the required texts in somewhere between 60 to 75 percent of English departments, according to company statistics, and the powers-that-are never miss an opportunity to cash in on an academic trend. Hence the publication of this volume, which indicates the seriousness with which rock writing is now being treated in some collegiate classrooms.

Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay has its incongruities—Lester Bangs in a Norton Anthology?—and yet it includes work well worth reprising, including Peter Guralnick’s introduction, which discusses his own approach to the artists and art he has written about for the past 35 years. Guralnick’s previous vocation was teaching classics, which seems pretty incongruous also, until we remember the entwined myths of Orpheus, Dionysus, and the Bacchae, those ancient rock ’n’ rollers and their groupies. More important here, the term “Classical” in its 19th-century, “anti-Romantic” sense came to form the foundation of Guralnick’s rock criticism, whose tonal and stylistic self-effacement always emphasizes the work and its creator as opposed to the processes of his own perceiving consciousness. As his introduction makes clear, Guralnick believes the music critic’s job is to present his subject as immediately and directly as possible, to appear only as the thinnest of membranes separating, say, Howlin’ Wolf and the reader.

Paradoxically, what Guralnick repeatedly pulls off is the quintessentially Romantic, Keatsian act of “negative capability”—and he pulls it off better than just about anyone since the poet. But it’s important to realize that his palimpsest-like approach to artists and their music nonetheless remains a style: Guralnick can’t wholly surrender himself any more than a soul immersed in song can literally transcend the body. Thus he makes an intriguing counterpoint to Stanley Booth, the Savannah resident who perhaps remains most famous for his proudly subjective 1984 book, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (reissued last year by A Cappella, $16.95). Booth’s answer to the problem of the perceiving self—quash it? celebrate it?—is to embrace it even if it kills him.

What follows is his account of the initial book negotiations with Jo Bergman, the Stones’ business manager: “Jo sat in a swing and swung slowly back and forth. It was, as I would learn, typical of the Stones’ manner of doing business that I didn’t know exactly what Jo did for them, and neither did she, and neither did they. She had consulted an astrologer in London who had told her that I would write this book, but that it would cost me everything except my life. She did not know the details—that while writing it I would be assaulted by Confederate soldiers and Hell’s Angels, would go to jail, be run over by a lumber truck on the Memphis-Arkansas bridge, fall off a Georgia waterfall and break my back, have epileptic seizures while withdrawing from drugs—but if she had known, she would not have told me. She didn’t tell me about the astrologer until much later, when there was no way to turn back. Now, eager, I climbed a swing chain with my hands—climbed it easily, for months I’d done nothing but write Basic English letters to the Stones and lift weights. As I reached the top and started down, my scarf fluttered up, my left hand clutched it around the chain, the silk was like oil, and I crashed to the ground, searing my hand, mangling the little finger, shocking it blue-white, with great crimson drops welling up where the flesh was torn away from the nail, dropping in the dust. ‘I thought you’d do that,’ Jo said, and I thought, Where am I, what is happening to me? I was in California, being punished for wearing a scarf.”

In the hands of the equally well-read but more self-consciously charismatic and “intellectual” Greil Marcus, such first-person reporting would quickly become insufferable. On the other hand, were Guralnick forced to write from Booth’s markedly subjective point of view, the result would doubtless be forced and embarrassingly overdetermined, a kind of print version of the Steve Martin/Dan Aykroyd “Wild and Crazy Guys” routine. What places Booth in their company is his threefold discovery: that the Romantic embrace of subjectivity confers an instant mantle of authority, since no reader will suspect the author of trying to disguise a personal point of view as absolute truth; that putting the reporter in the picture gives the subjects’ lives another dimension, since we become aware that they are responding to the presence of a self-declared observer and critic; and, last, that a story about chaos needs a center lest the story itself become meaningless, chaotic mumbo jumbo.

Booth’s initial injury—and his foreshadowing of more to come—also remind us that there used to be a cost attached to being an outlaw, musically or reportorially. Sure, those were the days of the “New Journalism,” a neo-Romantic but reportorial type of writing in which Booth (like fellow Southerners Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote) excelled; this literary subgenre has been blamed for more bad writing and acts of self-indulgence than the word processor, political correctness, and consumer-based narcissism combined. Nonetheless, the New Journalism insisted that writers have something at stake in their writing—in other words, a heartstring, if not a scarf, tied to the subject matter. It’s usually when that tie becomes splayed that trouble results: Too much heart, or Romanticism, can become boring and solipsistic; too much classically objective, “just the facts, ma’am” subject matter can become boring and dry.

Without directly addressing it, Booth nails this problem of balance with his account of the Stones’ pre-1969 tour press conference: “Finally the flashes stopped and for a long moment there were no questions, no one could think what to ask, the confrontation was enough; three years ago when the Stones last toured the United States, most of the people now here to interview them were teenagers screaming in darkened arenas their adoration of the Stones, who were going in the interim to be arrested, to swap women, to break up, to die, and yet here they are, elbows on the table.... [T]his generation, like every other, contained mostly dull-normal people who needed others to live their lives for them. Luckily there are always a few people who can and do live other people’s lives for them. They are the stars of the time.”

Booth’s own light has been too intermittent to allow him to rise to the stardom—and instant name recognition—of a Marcus or a Guralnick. The latter calls The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, with his characteristically self-effacing generosity, “the one authentic masterpiece of rock ’n’ roll writing.” More to the point, however, are the recommendations of Harold Brodkey and Robert Stone blazoned on the back cover. Booth is a writer whose subject happens to be music and whose genre happens to be nonfiction. He’s not a memoirist, but rather a “diarist” in the sense that Thomas DeQuincey or Robert Burton were diarists of, respectively, addiction and depression. Most accurately, he’s what James Merrill and/or John Ashbery (both have been credited) said of the poet Elizabeth Bishop: “a writer’s writer’s writer.”

We’re doubly lucky to have Booth’s Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South, (Da Capo, $16), a volume I’d never previously seen except via bootleg xeroxes and interlibrary loan, back in print as well. “Standing at the Crossroads,” a short one-act play, is worth the price of the book, released just last month; “The Funeral of Mississippi John Hurt” and “The Memphis Début of the Janis Joplin Revue” are other highlights.

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