Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Biztime Stories

The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records
By Ronin Ro

Garth Brooks, Wynona Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville
By Bruce Feiler
Avon Books

Ronin Ro's Have Gun Will Travel, the story of gangsta rap as real-life gangster Suge Knight sold it at Death Row Records, is all blood, gold, and insider hearsay. Bruce Feiler's Dreaming Out Loud, which follows the aspiring Wade Hayes, the troubled Wynonna Judd, and the titanic Garth Brooks through Nashville's recent boom years, is a meticulously schmoozed piece of professional reporting. One is slapdash and hard to put down. The other is so dense it'll glaze you over and so swift it'll perk you right up again. One is a scarier view of ghettocentric "reality" than most of the music it chronicles. The other deserves all the kudos heaped on Frederic Dannen's Hit Men and Fred Goodman's Mansion on the Hill, both of which it outstrips as analysis, literature, and worldview.

What makes Ro's book hard to resist is gossip that leaves no heroes standing. With a single exception--a promo man who takes a serious ass-whipping rather than reveal Puffy Combs's address to his enemies at Death Row--the venality of the best of his subjects is surpassed only by the brutality of the worst. When the smoke clears, the same Dr. Dre whose slimy lies Ro has coldly laid end to end seems almost sympathetic compared to the bystanders at Death Row and Interscope, who knew damn well that folks were getting pulped in the storeroom while they hustled their fat paychecks. Ro never convincingly rationalizes his informants' moral dilemma, and he lacks either the will or the ability to suggest what all this cultural pathology might mean. I can't stand most West Coast gangsta myself, but there's gotta be more to it than this. You get the impression that this New York-based journalist is so East Coast he can't quite grasp the sheerly musical attractions of Dre's stoned jeepbeats and Snoop Doggy Dogg's languid unflappability.

Feiler gets far more out of his less sensational material. Rock and rollers with no interest in country, especially its modern suburban variant, may not think they care about the the artists he accesses. But with Brooks especially, Feiler's access is awesome--beyond the realm of of authorized smarm, journalists rarely get so close to big stars anymore. And since what happened to Nashville in Brooks's wake is that country musicians became national celebrities like rock and rollers before them, much of what he observes applies to all pop music. Brooks's feuds with his label, Wynonna's traumatic comeback TV special, an orgasmic Hayes photo shoot, the quick, clear, detailed accounts of digital recording, radio promotion, and market research--these and much else add up to a portrait of the music business with the kind of nuances emotionally unavailable to dirt-dishers like Dannen, Goodman, and Ro. Not that their dirt isn't fascinating--just that they overestimate its significance after spending too many years dealing in it. Feiler sees artists getting screwed and numbers getting jiggered and favors getting traded without losing his focus on the music and all the people who care about it, fans most definitely included.

Dreaming Out Loud makes clear that mid-'90s country boomed at the confluence of America's new craving for tradition and Nashville's new willingness to flout it. With his apparently clashing cowboy and Dan Fogelberg fixations, his calculated arena shows and all-night autograph sessions, Brooks embodied and transcended the contradictions of a high-yield growth sector far more dependent than rock or rap on such familiar accoutrements as session musicians and radio play.

Because Feiler is basically pro-Garth, his account of the record-breaking record seller's descent into pure ambition is all too credible. He describes the star-time tribulations of Wynonna, "the weirdest person in country music," with just the right mix of compassion and raised eyebrows. And his portrayal of young Hayes, a "business-minded" hunk with a Waylon Jennings baritone who grosses a million bucks on the road yet doesn't take home a penny, is the kind of story no one who dreams of making a living from popular music can afford to ignore. As with Ro, it would be nice if Feiler understood the music a little better--could hear, for instance, that maybe Hayes's career stalled because once you dig beneath the voice there's not much there. But once again as with Ro, it doesn't matter because there's so much more to the biz than that.

Rolling Stone, 1997