Search & Destroy
Pages That Rock
Music is, of course, the soundtrack to most forms of rebellion, so I directed my own personal crime wave thus, ransacking mailboxes for those Columbia House, 8-for-a-penny bonanzas, lifting Dylan's Slow Train Coming from the Christian book store, and in a more daring move, stealing almost the entire music section from the local bookstore.
Nearly 20 years later, I'm completely reformed, and all those Columbia House Chicago albums are gone -- as is that Dylan tape -- and I've lost track of all my Roger Dean album cover artwork books. My Rolling Stone Record Guide, however, the first one, the one edited by a couple of the original deans of rock criticism, Dave Marsh and John Swenson -- not the lame rewrite from a few years back -- sits right beside my computer with all my other primary reference books.
Throughout my adolescence, the RSRG was my Bible, guiding me through the rigors of AOR rock radio, informing me which albums were worthy of five stars (Aftermath) and, which warranted the lowest rating, a block (Laverne & Shirley Sing). I read every page, studied it, memorized it, and based much of my record collection on it. In the early Eighties, when the New Rolling Stone Record Guide was published I wept with relief, believing the outdated had been updated. No such luck. Like the magazine from which it sprang, it had become monolithic and staid, yet nothing ever took its place. Then I discovered Ira Robbins' Trouser Press Guide.
Like most things in my life, I came across it late, in graduate school earlier this decade, when The Trouser Press Guide, having risen from the ashes of the same-named magazine Robbins had co-founded in 1974, was in its fourth printing. It was just sitting there on the table at the school newspaper, along with a lot of promo tapes nobody wanted -- totally up for grabs. So I took it. And as with the Rolling Stone Record Guide, I fell into it, reading it nightly and getting an education that would take years in nightclubs to equal. Here it was, the almighty successor to my Rosetta Stone -- an encyclopedia of modern music for modern times. Out with CSNY, in with the Minutemen. There is no other like it. The new New Rolling Stone Record Guide? Spin's Alternative Record Guide? Feh! Poseurs. There is only one reference book for music of the last 20 years: The Trouser Press Record Guide.
Well, actually there are four. No, five. There's a new one. When Robbins announced at a SXSW panel last year that he was finishing up a new one I started salivating. Finally published, The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock by Ira A. Robbins (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, $24.95 paper) isn't merely an update to the fourth edition. As Robbins writes in the preface, it's brand new: "Other than a few thousand words carried over from the fourth edition to prevent whiplash... this edition is completely new." Aphex Twin, Gastr del Sol, Chemical Brothers, Jessamine, Dirty Three, Portishead, Sky Cries Mary, Tortoise, Tricky.... All the groups of tomorrow, summed up today.
And more than just modern rock, Robbins and 50 cohorts (Jason Cohen, David Fricke, Bill Wyman, Jim DeRogatis, Neil Strauss, among them), pay close attention to rap, Americana -- even Austin; there are entries for the Bad Livers, Junior Brown, Ed Hall, Alejandro Escovedo, Fastball, Flowerhead, Johnboy, Evan Johns, Kathy McCarty, Pork, Seed, Sincola, Stretford, and T.I. Each entry not only gives a mind-bogglingly complete discography (you try rounding up Giant Sand, Guided by Voices, Half Japanese, Daniel Johnston, Residents, Sebadoh, Elliot Sharp, Wire, John Zorn, Zappa!) it also collects all the off-shoots of the entry in question. Thus, under the Butthole Surfers, you've also got Jackofficers, Daddy Longhead, Paul Leary, P, and Drain. In addition, all the important precursors to "90s Rock" get listings: Cale, Costello, Eno, Erickson, Pere Ubu, Iggy Pop, Red Krayola, Lou Reed, Neil Young. Even artists you wouldn't particularly expect in rock guides get listed -- Iris Dement, James McMurtry, Lyle Lovett. The critical assessments, meanwhile, don't fall all over themselves trying to be hipper-than-thou; they like Dave Matthews and Sponge.
In short, The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock is absolutely indispensable. Nothing comes close and few have even tried. And if you can't find a Minutemen entry in the new one, its in the last one, which should be on your shelf with the other four volumes. If you can't envision a music library without the Velvet Underground in it, this music reference book is for you. Ira Robbins, you are my rock. -- Raoul Hernandez
As music becomes increasingly cross-bred, compartmentalized, and commercialized, the elemental purity that was once the only reason for people to make a joyful noise is ever more compromised. That's only one reason it's so important for books like Woke Me Up This Morning: Black Gospel Singers and the Gospel Life by Alan Young (University Press of Mississippi, $18 paper) to exist. Telling the stories of black Mississippi and Tennessee gospel performers in their own words, Alan Young documents a niche of American music that has never been more vital and, defying all odds, manages to remain contemporary.
As long as people worship God, they will sing His praises, and the men and women of Woke Me Up This Morning live to worship God. That doesn't mean they're not human; far from it, as Early Wright of Clarksdale, Mississippi testifies: "I'm not the best person in the world. I don't profess to be. I've been wrong like everybody else and I still get drunk. I'm open-spoken. Anytime you leave me with a smile, you can rest assured we're all right."
That live-and-let-live attitude is essential to the performers (including Elder Roma Wilson, Melvin Mosley, Odell Hampton, and Leomia Boyd) in this book, who sing for God first, their friends, family, and audience second, and themselves last of all. Young has penned something that will last as long as gospel music, an oral history of an oral people that resonates with the spirit of the Lord. Calling Jesus on the mainline, twenty-six-year-old Rita Watson never gets a busy signal: "I had a person ask me about two weeks ago, `Why do you sing with your eyes closed?' ...when my eyes are closed, there's a vision of God sitting on the throne with a very pleasing expression on his face. And when I'm singing, I'm singing to him."
-- Christopher Gray
As if by default, the point of Mansion on the Hill is that between 1962 and the present, rock & roll's power base moved from the domain of dope-filled lofts to the boardroom of Sony and MCA. And that the period in-between -- of "Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock And Commerce," as Goodman says in a subtitle far simpler than the book -- is, in the author's estimation, the record industry's golden days and the quick birth and death of the rock star as "artist." While that may be, it also raises a bloated paradox Goodman never untangles -- that with the lure of big business, rock stars (Dylan, Young, etc.) inevitably sell out and that just as often the collision of rock and commerce isn't so much a collision after all but a blurred line instead.
Nonetheless, Goodman's onto something when he begins to detail the transformation of "performers" into "artists." Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan's surly manager, gets the credit for the semantical transformation, as well as the procedure of referring to live dates as concerts, rather than mere performances. "So you had an `artist' appearing at a `concert,' it always struck me as funny. I considered an artist to [be] Isaac Stern. And here were these folksingers," Goodman quotes David Braun, the former head of Polygram records, as saying. "Clive Davis said that as soon as they began being called artists instead of performers the fees went up."
With this, Goodman finds his first real theme and his first real antagonist in Grossman -- who also pioneered the art of collecting both a large chunk of publishing income and an unheard-of 25% management fee. And yet, while Grossman's relationship with Dylan yields some of the book's most insightful stories of managerial mistrust and mishandling, Goodman's best revelation may just come from Grossman's management of Peter, Paul & Mary -- a deal Goodman contends created the first true "creative control" of an artist's delivery, content and packaging of records. While the discovery of such ironies (Peter, Paul & Mary as business moguls) is what often makes Mansion on the Hill so rewarding in spite of itself, it's hard to escape the fact that it takes an 80-page build-up to find Grossman. Pre-Grossman, Goodman muddies the story with fluffy hippie revisionism-- awarding big impact points to Boston and San Francisco beatniks who would have made better asides and footnotes in the Grossman sections than as true subjects.
But as the Grossman investigations lead into Goodman's other two primary character vehicles -- former rock critic-cum-Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau and mailboy-cum-billionare David Geffen -- Goodman truly begins to lose control of his narrative. The new outlook, that managers have grown as charismatic as the performers they represent, is a winner -- and a better candidate for Mansion on the Hill's thesis than the sprawling mess of the "business ruined our art" theme Goodman chases. Using Grossman's managerial blueprints, Geffen and Landau indeed became the power-hungry figureheads that Goodman so fears and loathes. Seemingly, neither manager has met a conflict of interest they didn't love -- and watching Goodman untangle their messes is indeed the book's best cheap thrill.
This latter half of the book also begets Goodman's largest trainwreck, where the sheer number of concurrent storylines becomes baffling for the reader -- separate chapters on the three players would have better defined the stories. In fact, by chasing the larger story of business history, both Goodman's musical omissions (punk, disco, Jackson, Madonna, and U2) and mechanical omissions (distribution, retail, and radio) become even clearer than the story he does present. Peter Frampton manages to be the last new musical character we meet in any detail -- wouldn't this suggested inclusiveness just further bloat an already 375-page text? Yes, which is why a refined concentration of Grossman, Landau, and Geffen is all Mansion on the Hill needed in the first place.
More troubling is Goodman's righteous damnation of the "product" -- where despite his even tone in the historical portions he nonetheless manages to not so subtly cry "sell-out" each time his favorite artists disappoint him. But if rock & roll has truly become a "product," isn't it a chicken-and-egg scenario as to who's responsible -- the industry's proposal of bottom line economics, or the musicians' willingness to commercially compromise themselves? Without each other, neither the artists or industry exist as profitable entities, and less intelligent writers than Goodman have wisely stayed clear of that unanswerable question -- and instead, like Fredric Dannen's Hit Men, focused primarily on analyzing only a select piece of the equation.
And although Goodman's fatal flaw is that he can't resist the larger challenge, the best paradox he ultimately presents is this book itself -- for it comes off as such a valuable historical read to even the most casual music fan despite its narrative misgivings. Perhaps Goodman has himself perfected one of the record industry's best tricks -- making a record with only a few good songs that seem worth owning anyway. -- Andy Langer
Publishing these punk manifestos is a very good idea - most of these were photocopied issues that fell apart quickly. The night I got it, I took it home and immersed myself in it. The more I read it, the more I was absorbed into the rambling consciousness of rage that was happening back then, the sense of urgency we had about the music we heard. This, I realize, was the dawning of the age of Generation X; that punk's DIY ethic still fuels Gen X's fire.
Later that night, after having read a story on X in S&D, I coincidentally talked to Exene on the phone hours later, and doubtless bored her silly with a rambling tale of being drunk and writing the words to "The Have-Nots" on my bathroom door after having an epiphany at their Club Foot show. Maybe it was just me, I finally muttered, re-living a last gasp of nostalgia for a movement that's been co-opted by itself. No, I could almost hear her shaking her head. There really was something special to the music of the original punk movement, she agreed.
What I'd really like to see is a comprehensive compendium of the best of these punk publications. A complete collection such as the S&D series is cool but terribly limited in scope, hardly the apex of punk glory or the "only publication to fully document the punk cultural revolution" as the rather grandiose notes on its splashy back read. Still, it's a wonderfully evocative trip down the smelly alley that was the heyday of American punk. What was it that both Exene and I still hold close to ours hearts about those days? Ah, yes. A lust for life. -- Margaret Moser