Joe Carducci vs. Four-Eyed Fag
(Originally published in Tapeworm.)
I'm not going to argue with anyone that Joe Carducci hasn't produced a remarkable and worthwhile rock-critical tome in Rock and the Pop Narcotic. I'd say he should have basically slashed away most of the first part, in which he commits all of the sins he uses that space to indict others for, and made the second part, "The Psychozoic Hymnal," the real substance of the book. It's the kind of exercise--a sweeping, opinionated survey of the history of the music--that we should all be required to perform sooner or later. And I will say thank God he got that first edition out in 1990, because otherwise look what an opportunist he would seem in relation to the Alternative Nation revolution. Rock on, Joe.
Before I get to my really picayune complaints about his treatment of rock critics, I would like to briefly bemoan the overall semi-literacy of this project. I know--oh, how I know--that one of the most difficult problems of the whole rock-critical enterprise (such as it is) is the underlying illiteracy of the rock audience itself. If they can't read your words, will they know that a tree has fallen in the forest? But Carducci's fight-fire-with-fire strategy, if that's what it is, mars his book. Don't get me wrong. I appreciate a loose, casual, idiosyncratic voice--Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, and Byron Coley are masters of it--but all too often Carducci's clumsy language distracts. Maybe I should shut up and give him the benefit of the doubt, huh? That write/right/rite problem that surfaces in such constructions as "playwrite" and "right of passage" is just his sly way of rejecting HOMOnyms. Rite? And I suppose even raising the point at all is only more evidence that I'm a four-eyed fag with nothing better to do than criticize the ability of others to use English correctly.
God knows I don't care about rock music proper, as I learned at excruciating length in the bashing that occupies over 100 pages in the center of the book, "Narcorockcritocracy!" I was certainly happy to see Dr. Carducci take time from his busy schedule to really give it to me and my kind, those who appreciate New Order more than Uriah Heep, the Pet Shop Boys more than Jethro Tull, and fight to say so in print. I am talking, of course, about rock critics.
Now the last thing I want is to be put in the position of defending those who have provoked all the varying degrees of scorn (mixed with love too, I admit it) that I have for them: the bandwagon jumpers who cheer with cultivated ironic lust for last night's college radio permutations (staff of Spin), the dweebs who turn the enterprise into a series of idle math problem, e.g., the Sex Pistols + the B-52's = Pussy Galore (Ira Robbins and his merry Trouser Press band), the pathetically power-hungry dildoes who'd've preferred to lead a revolution (Dave Marsh, Bob Guccione, Jr., by request Jack Thompson), the hideously corrupted moguls (Jann Wenner, Jonathan Poneman ... sure glad you gave it to us straight about Kurt's heroin habit there, JP), the self-aggrandizing characters starring in their own private dramas (Greil Marcus), the inhuman databanks (Jack Rabid), and the mass of faceless, check-collecting, opinion-for-hire keyboard bangers we may refer to generically as Parke Puterbaugh.
I don't want to defend them but paradoxically I don't like seeing them attacked either, particularly by someone so obviously self-serving as Joe Carducci. We can't name names here because we really don't know, but SST was long notorious for yanking names off their promo lists in retaliation for unflattering reviews. Carducci, in his capacity as A&R hack for SST, at least had to be aware it was happening, even if he wasn't the one up late at night hunched over a desk drawing lines through names. Of course it's fine and entirely within SST's prerogative to do this, just as it's yours to kick your bare foot repeatedly against the wall and then complain about the state of both your foot and the wall. No one has to send rock critics product. It's just that it doesn't leave a lot of room for complaining about getting the wrong coverage. Because even if those rascal rock critics sell your product to the used record store sooner or later anyway, unheard as likely as not (and I agree that's a mighty small "if," but extenuating circumstances do apply, read on), still there's no way to listen to your product, let alone review it, if they don't have a copy of it. Write?
Time for a reality check. There's a certain cachet attributed by Carducci to being a rock critic that plain doesn't exist. Where, in the first place, does he get the idea that anybody ever bases a marketplace decision on what a rock critic thinks or says? Does he really think a rock critic does what he (far more often than she) does for money and glamour? What money? What glamour? And if Carducci is mad because most rock critics are still caught up in the sociopolitics of high school, he's not doing much to make his case with all the gratuitous homophobia, feigned or not. That's pure high school.
Carducci's buddy macho clearly has its appeal. The work of his most ardent supporters, including some who've written here and I hope continue to do so, shows that. For them, for all of us who can sense how right "feeb-rock" is to describe Pavement and its progeny, Carducci's book serves as a critical touchstone and provides a vocabulary that many had been groping for. As a friend commented to me, Carducci really has finally formulated the rock aesthetic behind the Forced Exposure school, an overdue task, and he has unified and provided focus to all those ashtray heart inarticulates you see in the clubs standing alone and together, clutching beers that slop as they bang their heads righteously. That's even been me at some of those shows.
But what's with the rock-crit abuse? Most of them that I know are just obsessed maniacs driven helplessly by their love of something they don't understand ... it's the love that drives them and the need to try and understand its depths, not the material or social rewards, which just don't exist (repeat: don't exist). Now of course I am happy for Joe Carducci that he can create a dichotomy (rock vs. pop) and a drama (purist rock defiled by whore pop!) that works for him. If there is a guitar or two and an amplified bass and a drumkit and everyone is playing together, he seems to be basically satisfied. To my tastes, he has apotheosized early-'70s prog impulses beyond reason, which make me want to challenge him on a few points--like for example I don't understand his problem with Slayer if he likes Motorhead and Metallica so much. Did Slayer sneak a keyboard in when someone wasn't looking? I missed that. In my mind Slayer's the best of the three, they rock the hardest, and I've seen them all. In fact, I could have sworn that was fusion (dare I say prog) noodling I saw Metallica putting down. But never mind, rock critics are allowed their quirks and make no mistake, a rock critic is exactly what we have in Joe Carducci.
As such, he is as infuriating as any of them. Rock is good, pop is bad--where does he get off with these ridiculously easy distinctions? "I Think We're Alone Now" was every bit as life-changing for me as "School's Out," and Very vies with Nevermind as my favorite album of the '90s so far. Joe Carducci has never ached for some gorgeous, disposable piece of pop flotsam? I don't believe it. And I'm certainly not going to reduce the mystery of what I love and what moves me to something as simple as drums-bass-guitars playing together. In a way I envy Carducci's ability to do so. Well, I take that back. I think he's a horse's ass for simplifying it so grossly.
Carducci might not believe this, but a lot of rock critics understand exactly where his apprehensions are coming from. I've thrown magazines too. But I would like to invite him, now that he has written a very important book, to spend some time getting his word out in the rock press that he deems so deeply influential. No one can know what it's like to work in those environments until they do. This is the fact: You are required to justify, over and over, the painfully obvious. Like why Husker Du should be covered instead of Limited Warranty (Minneapolis winners of "Star Search" circa 1984), why Sub Pop should be covered instead of Duffy Bishop (white R'n'B fraud packin' 'em into Seattle's Pioneer Square, a bar district, circa 1989), why the drag theater renaissance in Seattle should not be overlooked (circa 1992), what's wrong about Tom Grant and what's right about Courtney Love (circa 1995). It's like reinventing the wheel every fucking week.
Eventually it becomes easier to cave, because even when you win the battle of story selection, then you get the battle of story slant and line-by-line language. And then they can just go ahead and kill the story anyway, and if you're lucky you get a kill fee, which is usually about a third of what you were supposed to get for the story in the first place. Let's see, a third of $50 for two or more days' work already done is... Plus of course then you get an A&R hack on the other end of your long-distance line (reimbursement for which does not happen often enough), asking why you said you would write a story about Saint Vitus, and now you're not. Look, at least the radio people get cash and drugs. Rock critics get intermittent free product and virtually no money. They basically function to boost morale for industry people and other professional scene-makers. Nobody pays attention to them except to complain about the lousy job they're doing. Am I defensive? YES! I think a lot of what Carducci says is true, but bottom line he's more part of the problem than the solution. And you wouldn't believe how often this is the case. Your granite marble rock heroes have feet of clay, count on it.
In 1983, I was working as one of the arts & entertainment editors for my college paper in Minneapolis, getting out a weekly insert section, the size of which depended solely on advertisers, who almost always feel defiled by placement in the rock section, despite the fact that it's a truism of the "alternative" newsweekly world that movies and rock are what pay the bills and pull the readers. It was a dodge for me--I'd completed my undergrad coursework the year before, but had still not filed to graduate. I just wanted the work, for which I was paid $125 a week, plus $2 apiece for calendar items, $25 for review pieces, and $35 for feature stories. Even back then, if I have to tell you, annual earnings less than $10,000 were not sufficient to survive comfortably. I went out to see bands most nights and played records at home all the time and pretty well controlled the rock (okay, pop) coverage. I also worked with a staff of writers, assigning coverage of movies, theater, dance, art, TV, and whatever else fit within our scope, plus I copy-edited stories as they came in and put in a 12-hour production day each week.
One day in December, as we were nailing down the production schedules for the rest of the term and beginning to plan for January, Grant Hart came to pay me a surprise visit. Largely because I'd heard about incidents like the one about to befall me, I had specifically avoided getting to know anyone in rock bands. No matter the size of their talents, you can usually count on them to be, uh, less than informed about how press coverage works, and all too frequently they take your coverage, or lack thereof, personally. They're a lot like Joe Carducci--and kind of like me, maybe, in writing this. It's a hard life for all of us, isn't it? Anyway, Husker Du was starting to gig again in support of their new Metal Circus EP and had been scheduled to play the little student center club during winter break. I can't remember if it had been a last-minute booking, or if the club (who normally booked no-name no-talents...this was a coup for them, even in 1983) had simply failed as usual to notify us of the event. Whatever. The show was happening right in the middle of winter break anyway, when the paper was not published, and Professor Hart showed up on our doorstep far too late for us to do anything about it. But that didn't stop him from waving around a copy of Metal Circus (maybe their best single release of a lot of good ones and one I was dying to hear, coming as it did on the heels of the breakthrough Everything Falls Apart, a significant step forward from the godawful Land Speed Record) and threatening not to give us a promo copy if we didn't absolutely promise to preview the show. Which we could not possibly do.
So that's the picture I have of Joe Carducci, or whoever, scanning through the promo lists pulling names. I'm not making any money, I'm on Grant Hart's frigging side, there's nothing I can do because he's the one who doesn't know what he's talking about--yet I'm the jerk. Much later, after the release of Zen Arcade, I wrote a lengthy cover feature story about the Huskers, but that time Hart was mad at me because I hadn't been able to track him down when I was doing the interviews, and so I'd based most of the story on a long talk with Bob Mould. Evidently--and I find this ironic in regard to Carducci's central literary conceit--Hart and Mould had reached the end that summer of their sexual relationship and there was a lot of bad blood simmering between them. My talking to Mould was what you might call "threatening" to Hart, and probably contributed to why he had ducked me continually in the first place. (I didn't ask Mould about it, it was none of my business, and of course the subject didn't come up.) I don't know why, but after that story was published I arranged to interview Hart and a few weeks later I managed to sell a tepid promo puff piece to the St. Paul daily that also included quotes from him. I later got word that he thought it was one of the best stories ever written about Husker Du. Gee, thanks, Grant.
Okay, Grant Hart didn't understand. But that's exactly my point. There are a lot of institutional, built-in problems for rock critics which Joe Carducci not only doesn't address, I think he doesn't even know they exist. I would love, for example, to see him write for the Seattle Times, where I freelanced for three relatively miserable years. I guarantee: if he had no other options but that job, Joe Carducci would write about community theater productions of Gilbert & Sullivan sooner or later. (And I would love to see what he had to say.) The thing about Carducci, however, is that unlike most rock critics (or more often, sadly, the wannabes who churn through "Pulse!"-level outlets), he's been generally smart enough to sidestep the nonsense. Instead he toiled in the indie vineyards and then landed a book deal and fell all over it. Well, bully for him. A book provides opportunity and space for sustained arguments and coherence. Fifty words or less on a Saint Vitus album does not. At some level Carducci has to know that, which makes his lengthy (we're talking practically a quarter of the book) attack on rock critics all the more reprehensibly dishonest.
But you have to give him credit. Even more than the Monkees, he's got something to say. His aesthetic and his judgments seem kind of weird to me--sorry, just can't get with Montrose. Plus, loath as I am (for shallow generational considerations and other obvious reasons) to defend them, I really have to say that if your formulation of rock doesn't have room for Bob Dylan or Neil Young, then your formulation of rock is wrong. (What the fuck was that "roll" thing anyway?) Still, for better or worse it's all in a day's work for a rock critic and should be taken as such. Because the bad news and the good news is that Joe Carducci is a rock critic. Live with it.