Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock Bios

ELVIS. By Dave Marsh. Rolling Stone/Warner, $14.95 paper.

The Beatles, the first of Rolling Stone Press's coffee-table rockbooks, cited jacket artist Andy Warhol and introduction typer Leonard Bernstein on the cover, finally mentioning Geoffrey Stokes, author of the quite respectable if not especially original text, on the title page. In its cloth-bound version, the cover of this second entry in the series was a smoldering Chuck Fishman photo-portrait unmarred by type of any kind, but at least Dave Marsh got his name on the spine, and in this paperback, he graduates all the way to the front. He earned it. The profiteering cynicism of Albert Goldman, the purist cynicism of Peter Guralnick, and the honest hackdom of Jerry Hopkins pale beside this terse chronicle of the King. Though Marsh is occasionally overdependent on Greil Marcus's "Presliad," he strikes out in new directions that are startling this late in the Elvis game. Because he understands that the first rock and roll hero was deep in his heart a great ballad singer, his account of Elvis's movie-era music is more convincing than that of Mick Farren and Roy Carr, the only other critics of any discernment to plow through it all. He pinpoints Elvis's publishing deal with Hill & Range as a key to the mediocrity of so many of the songs he recorded, an obvious insight that no one else has ever committed to print. And he asserts that Sam Phillips, so often identified (like Beatles producer George Martin in the old days) as the brains behind the music, functioned as the first of many Certified Cultural Authorities who restricted Presley's art--a blasphemy typical of his profound empathy and unreconstructed class animus. One more thing: art director Bea Feitler gets equal billing with Marsh on the title page, and she earned it, too.

THE ROLLING STONES. By Robert Palmer. Rolling Stone/Doubleday, $29.95.

French Roast Rock III once again makes you turn pages to find out who wrote it, and I wish I could complain louder. Robert Palmer has put more care into the text here than he did with Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks!, but both the history and the analysis are fairly pedestrian, especially measured against the standard of his definitive Deep Blues. As so often happens with these picture books, important themes--most significantly the tension between life-force and death-wish--are mapped but never satisfactorily explored. Even the musical descriptions, always Palmer's long suit, do full justice only to Keith Richards, who appears to have been his most useful primary source. And I don't know about you, but I find that the Stones' songs have worn a lot better than their supposedly iconic faces, which appear in no less than 288 versions over these 256 pages.

LOVE IN VAIN: The Life and Legend of Robert Johnson. By Alan Greenberg. Doubleday/Dolphin, $8.95 paper.

Since facts about Robert Johnson are almost as hard to come by as facts about Shakespeare, Greenberg proposes to give flesh to myth instead, in the form of a filmscript based on but by no means limited to available research and recollections. He makes it happen, too. Drenched in alcohol and bodily fluids, this is gut-bucket romanticism at its most credible. By imagining the Mississippi Delta's churches, shacks, cotton fields, and (especially) jooks so vividly, Greenberg helps us see and hear why blues buffs are obsessed with all that raunch and suffering transport. Not that things don't get overheated at times--there's really no need for the anachronistic appearance of Thomas Dorsey, to take just one instance, and often Greenberg's atmospheric conceits teeter on the purple edge. The narrative moves smartly until he tries to sneak too many songs into recording sessions that occur too close to the climax. And while the copious notes are welcome, page references and a bibliography would have made Greenberg's debts and liberties easier to track down.

THE NAME OF THIS BOOK IS TALKING HEADS. By Krista Reese. Proteus, $9.95 paper.

Quickies like this are the staples of the rockbook world. About 70 of its 128 7x10 pages are consumed by graven images, slapped across the captionless expanse with a brush-stroke motif and some art-school cubism serving as design elements. That leaves room for 40 pages of text plus a competent six-page discography, with one third of each page given over to margin. Reese, who has done similar clip-file jobs on Chuck Berry and Elvis Costello, hasn't talked to the band or anyone who knows them except for a distant school chum and the loquacious Nona Hendryx. For someone who's unaware that Bryan Ferry was the founder of Roxy Music and Memphis a city in Egypt, she does a decent job of piecing together the band's history, with welcome attention to sex-role feuds. But though she seems to have her own ideas about what the Heads' music means, she never makes clear exactly what they are. Something to do with work.

MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero. By Ed Ward. Cherry Lane, $8.95 paper.

The print ratio here is much higher than in Reese, but because the pages are really laid out and the illustrations varied and handsomely reproduced, this uncommon photo-quickie is far more pleasant to look at. That's probably because it's a true memorial, organized by Bloomfield confident Toby Byron. Ed Ward has researched Bloomfield thoroughly and told his story with clarity, insight, and loving professionalism--it's easily the best-written book of the genre I've ever encountered. The text has two limitations, however: length and subject. Ward succeeds surprisingly well at making the guitarist seem as important as his chief sources must think he is. But he's obliged to gloss over why Bloomfield, the very first white-boy blues virtuoso, never gained the fame of a Clapton or a Hendrix or even a Beck. How good was Bloomfield, anyway? Was his case of the guitar crazies exemplary or just his own problem? Was his inability to organize a band or hack touring bound up with whatever drove him to the drugs that killed him in 1981? Ward deserves credit for inspiring all these questions. With a little more space (and maybe a little more autonomy) he might have begun to answer them.

THE MICHAEL JACKSON STORY. By Nelson George. Dell, $2.95 paper.

With photo-quickies targeted for college-bounds, rack-quickies, once the rock-book equivalent of the great hit single (cf. Brian Epstein's A Cellarful of Noise or Pete Goodman's Our Own Story by the Rolling Stones), are now conceived as disposable fanbooks for junior high school students. This one makes the most of its bind. It was done too fast--the editor in me cringed at the occasional misspelled names and syntactical gaffes, not to mention the news that the Jackson 5 invented bubblegum music (that was Jeff Kasenetz and Jerry Katz, Nelson). But its prose is clean and its history enlightening. Though like most quickie writers George had no first-hand and limited second-hand access to his subject, he's shaped numerous interviews and often obscure point sources into a graceful, reliable, and sometimes surprising narrative. With subtle warmth and respectful understatement, George makes this unexpected world-class superstar seem serious, inquisitive, even humble. But he's also willing to excerpt a truly nutso interview about pet rats and to point out that Jackson's "almost European" nose and eyes constitute "physical changes that can only result from cosmetic surgery." And he sneaks in some music criticism. Say say say.

LOVING JOHN: The Untold Story. By May Pang and Henry Edwards. Warner, $8.95 paper.

Loving John looks like sleaze because it is sleaze--great sleaze. Pang was John Lennon's live-in lover during his separation from Yoko, and she tells a familiar tale: her rival was preternaturally manipulative and no good in bed. What spurned inamorata doesn't believe the same? We don't buy the bed part--good sex takes many forms, and it seems likely that John and Yoko had access to several of them. But we do believe Pang's claim that Yoko conceived and instigated the affair, and we're shaken by her evidence that John only returned to Yoko under influence of hypnosis (and stole back to Pang for secret respites now and then). Of course, Pang never wonders how much John's subconscious collaborated in this melodrama; the two women seem to have played the childhood tension between his live-in Aunt Mimi (warm, sensible, stern-but-supportive May) and his absent mother, Julia (temperamental, mysterious, selfish-but-indulgent Yoko). Pang loved rock and roll where Yoko didn't and argues convincingly that her relationship with John was the healthier one. But the normal life of a rock and roll pro doesn't seem to have been a goal of John's, if indeed it was an option, and the fact remains that the time he spent with Pang coincided with the only mediocre patch in his career. If Pang's understanding is limited, however, her raw material is fascinating--a rare glimpse into the hidden depths and everyday textures of a star's life. And amanuensis Henry Edwards has the wit to render this material in prose so received it's almost translucent--mere language never stands between the reader and the next page. (This review was written with Carola Dibbell.)

HIT AND RUN: The Jimi Hendrix Story. By Jerry Hopkins. Perigee, $8.95 paper.

This prosaic exploitation offers a more hard-headed look at Hendrix than David Henderson's brilliant but sloppy 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky, which has had Martin Luther King dying in 1969 through two editions. Hopkins is sharp on Hendrix's fucked-up finances, uncovers a few embarrassing indiscretions and a bizarre kidnapping, and leaves no doubt that the guitar genius could be a foolish psychedelic glutton. But where Henderson's insights into both black culture and hippie culture border on the miraculous, Hopkins's are inane; his little paragraphs about the '60s are as useless as pop sociology ever gets. And where Henderson's descriptions of Hendrix's music are the finest ever published, Hopkins's--based in large part, like so much of this book, on secondary sources--are devoid of critical imagination. In short, a depressing book for all the wrong reasons.

BEFORE I GET OLD: The Story of the Who. By Dave Marsh. St. Martin's, $10.95 paper.

The rock myth of the '60s balanced unbridled hero-mongering against two chronically unstable images of collectivity--the relationship between artist and audience, and the relationship among members of an ongoing group. A biography that somehow pinned those relationships down would be a new kind of writing the way rock and roll is a new kind of music. In the rockbook of the year, Dave Marsh gives both a go while at the same time wrestling with the riddle that lies at the music's heart--its doomed yet amazingly fruitful search for eternal youth. And his failure may only mean that the challenge of putting all this stuff together is an impossible one. If Peter Townshend and his mates were done in by the contradictions of their art, what can a mere fan--even one as honest, bright, and dedicated as Marsh--do to resolve them? Unfortunately, it's not clear in any case that Marsh has the theoretical equipment the project requires. His attempts to put the group in the larger context of 20th century aesthetics betray a writer not fully in command of his concepts, and he's content to spell out how the group's saga touches the even thornier conundrums of collectivity and maturity without ever risking a synthesis. But this is to criticize Marsh on a level no other rock biographer except Nick Tosches has even approached. Before I Get Old may not be quite as well reported as Philip Norman's Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation, its only competition among group bios, but its research is thorough and unflinching. Not only that, Marsh knows music and has a real narrative gift. His concise discussions of the Who's records is ground-breaking, and from his evocation of four London childhoods to his account of Peter Townshend's sad, desperate spiritual struggles, he tells an engrossing and moving story.

Village Voice, Dec. 20, 1983