by Michael Goldberg
Monday, July 8, 2002
Rock Snob Or Cultural Archeologist?
Why do we rock critics love that which is marginal or forgotten?
I believe it was an early album by the Red House Painters I was playing one evening when some friends arrived for dinner. After we'd poured them some wine and were standing around the kitchen talking, one of my friends, an opinionated music lover, noticed the music. He didn't like it. And as he loves to tease me, he went off about "how come, being that you're a rock critic and supposed to know something about music, you're always playing this kinda junk?" Those weren't his exact words, but that's the gist.
I made an articulate and passionate defense of the Red House Painters, a band I felt like I'd discovered (rock critics love to discover bands and champion them!), although in fact I'd merely attended one of their shows before they had a record deal, at the suggestion of American Music Club leader Mark Eitzel (we like to name-drop too!).
He wasn't buying my argument. Me, I just figured he didn't "get it." There I was, feeling smug. Another victory. Critic: 1; fan: 0.
Or was it? Lately, I haven't been feeling so smug about my love of the obscure. It's not that my taste in music has changed; it hasn't. But I'm more forgiving of those who, for whatever reason, don't want to walk down the narrow, overgrown path where I like to lightly tread.
The rock critic as passionate defender of some obscure and difficult music has become something of a joke. In the book "Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001," I recently read a piece titled "The Rock Snob's Dictionary" by Steve Daly, David Kemp and Bob Mack. While the trio were not limiting their arrows to just rock critics (any old rock snob is fit for their skewering), as I read the piece I couldn't help recognizing myself and some of my contemporaries.
Their "The Rock Snob's Dictionary" was a short collection of bands and other rock-related obscurities including the "Anthology of American Folk Music," Lester Bangs, Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart (aha!), Big Star (double aha!), Tim and Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake, Gram Parsons, the MC5, Krautrock and so on. All the stuff I routinely defend. Oh my God, I thought, I'm a cliché!
Certainly there is almost nothing as fun as writing about some totally unknown or lost artist. And I'm certainly not alone. Rock critics love to write about esoteric artists, the more obscure and hard to get access to, the better.
I think I first experienced this in 1974 when I read Greil Marcus' first book, Mystery Train, in which he went on at length about an artist called Harmonica Frank. I'd never heard of Harmonica Frank. As I recall, none of his recordings were commercially available when the book was published. In other words, Harmonica Frank was the perfect "rock critic artist." Marcus could make the most grand, sweeping statements about Frank's "art," and how could anyone refute them?
I think Marcus is the best of the rock critics. Over the years he's championed Dock Boggs (now there are at least two easily-accessed collections of his recordings, but for many years nothing was available), the until-recently-out-of-print Anthology of American Folk Music, Lester Bangs (Marcus edited the posthumous collection of Bangs' writings), and the mostly unreleased five CDs' worth of "Basement Tapes" recordings of Bob Dylan and The Band, about which he wrote an entire book (and within which he heard an entire strange and secret history of America).
Is it simply the snob in us that loves to be "in" on music (or films or art or books...) that others don't know about? How many times have I said something like "You've never heard Skip James?" or "Well, you've just got to put in the time and eventually Trout Mask Replica will reveal itself to you"?
Perhaps it has to do with what appealed to us as kids about rock. We felt we were hip to a secret world, an alternative culture that our parents, and adults in general, just didn't "get." In those days, digging Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones and even the Beatles was enough. But in a world where Bob Dylan has won a Grammy, where the Rolling Stones sell out stadiums, where The Beatles are international heroes, there's nothing hip about loving their music. Sometimes it can seem that the mystery and wonder of their music has been bled dry by their very popularity. I remember that as Nirvana became super popular, one friend of mine, a fan, stopped listening to their music. He just didn't want to be listening to a band that was on the cover of the Rolling Stone.
And so we search for something new and unknown (electronic music is really good for this), or dig into the past, looking for that forgotten bluesman we can "discover." Yeah, there's something of the snob thing to all of this. But I think it's more than that. I think those of us who take part in the search are simply looking for something that strikes us as pure and soulful. Something real. Something uncontaminated by the commerce machine.