Kill Your Stranded Grooves
One mania which afflicts many of us who listen to, play and write about music is the compulsion to pick favorite albums. When a group of listeners tries to codify their views into a top 10 or top 100 (or, as Rolling Stone have recently done, top 500) list, arguments, letters to the editor and, now, even books inevitably ensue. Meanwhile, most individual fans will be left with a few consensus favorites they endorse, some celebrated items they reject, and a few dark horse items which they try to talk everyone into liking.
Back in the late 80’s, around the time I was getting a fairly firm grip on the rock discography, Rolling Stone made its first attempt at a rock top 100 list. Before that, though, there was the Greil Marcus-edited Stranded, in which a few of the first wave of rock crits wrote essays about the album they’d take to a desert island. Most of the choices were fairly predictable for that crowd (although the book is worth a glad hand if for nothing else than giving us Lester Bangs’s essay on Astral Weeks, perhaps his finest writing), but a few were so mainstream as to seem thoroughly eccentric now the Eagles? Linda Ronstadt? Heck, Marcus gives it up for Boston near the end. (The Greil Marcus canon: Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan and Tom Scholz.) Rolling Stone’s effort, though, set the tone for the mainstream even in its anti-mainstreamness: straightahead classic rock ruling the roost but mixed with just enough punk to hide the old fart aroma.
Last year, the curmudgeonly Chicagoan Jim DeRogatis coedited Kill Your Idols, in which a new group of writers trash the rock classics of their choice. The book might seem to be the anti-_Stranded_, but it seems that it’s Rolling Stone that truly gets Jim’s goat. Unfortunately, although the best bits succeed at deconstructing the canon (DeRogatis, for instance, puts together a good account of how Sgt. Pepper carried the seeds of much that would be complacent and self-congratulatory in the first wave of mature rock, although he can’t hide how much brilliance was also there), much of it is just Rolling Stone in reverse. Instead of endless paragraphs about how great Hendrix was, endless paragraphs about how much Gram Parsons sucked; instead of tales of how ‘Brown Sugar’ was the new radio hit when you were young and vital, tales of how the jocks who beat you up in school liked Nevermind or how you tried to use "Heart of Gold" to seduce the local hottie and struck out.
A month or two after I finished Kill Your Idols, I discovered another recent book, Lost in the Grooves (edited by Kim Cooper and David Smay), almost by accident. If upending the rock canon is a worthy goal, this book has the approach I like: positive, off center, championing the underdog even when he turns out to be Paul McCartney. The book is a series of capsule reviews of uncelebrated favorites, and although the pick with which I agree most, Spirit’s Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, isn’t all that obscure (it went gold, after all), more than half of the book is stuff I’ve never heard of at all. There’s a bit of the anti-canon thing Jim O’Rourke writes that he’d rather hear about Sparks’s Propaganda than Pet Sounds, but, to balance that out, I can’t help being amused by O’Rourke’s comment that ‘Propaganda is the standard to which I hold myself and everything else.’ (Imaginary dialogue: ‘Well, Jeff, I guess A Ghost Is Born is shaping up pretty well. But it’s no Propaganda.")
Despite my snide comments, though, I can’t come down too hard on either Kill Your Idols or those Rolling Stone top-whatever issues. It’s a nice feeling to be there when one of those mass-transit musical buses is pulling up to the stop just when you need a ride: that’s happened for me with Dark Side of the Moon, The White Album, _Led Zeppelin IV _ (although that wore off a bit after a few years), or, getting into jazz, Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, or, delving into everyone’s-favorite-dark-horse territory, Trout Mask Replica. Or, in terms of this website, 5/8/77. And there are a few consensus classics which I’ll never get into, and a few which are even sort of fun to dislike: I checked out Never Mind The Bollocks once in high school and I doubt I’ll bother with it again. And as often as I try to appreciate Dylan, I usually end up feeling about his albums the way I feel about carrots: they’re what I consume when I’m looking for something good for me but not when I’m seeking some fun.
The current development, though, is that it’s hard to keep polishing a list of old favorites, or non-favorites, because so much new stuff comes in each day. That’s how it is, now, and it’s not likely to change very soon.