Friday, September 18, 2009

Dancing About Dancing About Architecture

I will admit that, despite my literary aspirations and my need to keep updated on my legal knowledge, I am far more likely to pick up a book about music than about anything else. My favorite book is Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus (a pretty literary music book, to be sure, but still). Anyway, I just finished a couple of the many books on my growing "to be read" shelf, so here's what I thought of them.

Joe Carducci, Rock and the Pop Narcotic - This book is infuriating on at least two fronts, some intentional and some unintentional.

The intentional one is Carducci's constant, and almost pathological, interest in tearing down sacred cows and accepted theories regarding rock music. More to the point, he enjoys tearing down these idols with a pointedly foul mouth. While much of this is funny, and he usually makes a valid point, it gets a bit old over the course of book.

Further, Carducci's staunch political conservatism starts to grate as he constantly rages against "hippies", "liberals", and "feminists". While I am more than happy to read disparate viewpoint, Carducci's screeds have an unsufferable grating, pedantic tone. This carries over into his dismissal of much of the music industry and music criticism in particular. Carducci is obsessed with his long treatises on how out-of-touch music writers are to the music they cover, a fair point, but one Carducci beats into irrelevance by his constant repetition.

Carducci's intentionally limited view of what rock music is can also be irritating. Rock is defined as heavy music using drums, bass, and electric guitar, period. He summarily dismisses synth-based and other music that falls outside of this box as not "rock music", and seems insulted that it could ever be confused as such. There is a major flaw with this categorization which I never was able to overcome. I will agree that the umbrella of what the public deems rock music to be is absurdly large, as it basically covers all popular music that is not hip-hop, R&B, or vocal pop (and even then there is some cross-pollination). Truthfully, I can endorse Carducci's thesis here, that the definition of rock should be limited, and I can even accept his definition. However, in throwing out a number of styles, Carducci makes so attempt whatsoever to classify them as anything other than "not rock"- leaving the whole endeavor pretty pointless. Ultimately, its a straw man argument that Carducci puts up to say that his favorite bands are somehow more authentic and of greater value than bands he dislikes. Ultimately, Carducci's entire theme throughout the book is that the music industry and critical press is outdated, out of touch, and terminally flawed as it was unreceptive to Carducci's idea of the perfect rock band, Black Flag.

As down as I am about much of this book, what makes this discussion difficult is that I can't legitimately pan it and say it is of no interest. Carducci is brilliant, and parts of this book are exceptional. He has some insights into the music industry that are truly unique and fascinating, particularly the titular discussion of the "pop narcotic" which dooms bands to irrelevancy. A good and tough editor could have made this one of the great music books. Instead, it remains an irritating, over-long, infuriating, sloppy, one-sided, hopeless gem of a book.

Greg Prato, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music - In the tradition of Please Kill Me and We've Got the Neutron Bomb, this book attempts to draw together the recollections of those involved in the boom times of Seattle music at the beginning of the 90's to present a definitive history of the era. For the most part, Prato is successful at achieving his goals.

The first 1/3rd of the book, where Prato solicits memories of acts pre-dating the grunge era, does suffer from some major problems, the most egregious being that its pretty boring overall. Most of the anecdotes are some variation of "this band was really cool" or "punks weren't well regarded by the rest of society" or "everyone was really friendly and communal, before it got all commercial". Part of the blame for this is on the subjects, as they just don't present very interesting stories, but part of the blame has to fall on Prato, who needed to either ask better questions of his subjects or realize that, as he didn't have very interesting material, he needed to cut back on his coverage of that era.

Once the book gets into the Green River/Mother Love Bone era, though, things start to pick up. Prato assembles a very strong and diverse range of subjects, with only a few notable omissions (no Cornell, Lanegan, Novoselic, Grohl, or Love), but almost everyone else, including all of Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, the surviving members of Alice in Chains, the rest of Soundgarden, Tad Doyle, the Van Conner brothers, etc. For the most part, everyone is willing to discuss things from a "warts and all" perspective, and it is interesting to see events that are fairly well known in music circles from alternate perspectives (for example, seeing both sides of the infamous Green River show where the guest list was made up almost exclusively of music industry people who didn't bother to show up or realizing that Jerry Cantrell really does seem to be that much of a callous jerk). Prato has some issues with editing, in that he tries to have the book arranged by subject but also chronologically, leading to some confusion about exactly when certain things occurred in relation to others, but for the most part he keeps things moving. Highly recommended.