Friday, April 14, 2023

Book Review: Chuck Eddy's Rock and Roll Always Forgets (2011)

Chuck Eddy's Rock and Roll Always Forgets
Over the past 15 or 20 years, music criticism has become both ubiquitous and mostly disposable. The evolution of this once-hallowed literary endeavor can arguably be traced to the criticism of classical composer George Handel by his contemporary Charles Avison in 1752, although it would be modern scribes like Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, Paul Williams, and Greg Shaw, among others, that would define and develop the dubious art form known as “rock criticism” during the 1960s and ‘70s.

As writing about music evolved beyond the milieu of handmade zines and poorly-distributed magazines, it would eventually become known as “music journalism,” and album reviews and artist interviews could be read everywhere from syndicated columns and glossy mainstream publications to small-town newspapers. Until recently, many big city newspapers usually had one, if not two writers working the “entertainment beat,” talking about music and such. Not coincidently, the downfall of music criticism can be traced somewhat to the advent of the Worldwide Web, which allowed anybody to be a publisher, and everybody to be a critic, albeit without editors and whether or not they had writing chops, or even a faint knowledge of music history whatsoever.

Now the Reverend has a vested interest in this unfortunate evolution of music criticism, what with being an old-school rockcrit who teethed on Marsh and Bangs and Metzger, and who mentored under, perhaps, the greatest of the early rock ‘n’ roll wordsmiths – the one and only Rick Johnson. But the Rev is no aging Luddite blaming all the publishing industry’s ills on the gosh danged Internet. While the web has definitely upset the traditional applecart as far as music magazines go, it has also enabled low-budget, high-quality media outlets like Blurt to exist.  

But even among the glut of online music zines and personal blogs, a few intelligent voices have managed to rise to the top like cream, writers like Jim DeRogatis, Martin Popoff, Fred Mills, and Chuck Eddy managing to bring new insight and perspective to an increasingly noisy critical realm too often overwhelmed by static and poorly-formed opinions expressed in too-brief reviews. Eddy, in particular, has distinguished himself as a critic to be reckoned with, both as music editor at the Village Voice and as a contributor to such publications as Creem, Rolling Stone, and Spin, among others. Eddy has also penned a couple of highly-entertaining tomes of music criticism and theory – The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the controversial and often hilarious Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe, which made a strong argument for the inclusion of recordings by funk-soul diva Teena Marie.

Eddy’s latest book, Rock and Roll Always Forgets, is sub-titled “a quarter century of music criticism” and, as such, it collects essays and reviews chosen from throughout Eddy’s 25 years as one of America’s most entertaining and annoying music critics. While it suffers slightly from a lack of an overall concept as his previous books, Eddy has broken everything down to thematic chapters, such as “Predicting The Future,” in which he illustrates the futility of predicting where music is going by using his own past statements, and “Alternative To What,” where Eddy questions the often-mindless pigeonholing of music through reviews/essays on the Ramones, Big Black, SST Records, Nirvana, Marilyn Manson, and others.  

Much of Rock and Roll Always Forgets is entertaining and thought-provoking as only Eddy can achieve. Chapters tackle heavy metal (Metallica, AC/DC, Def Leppard); hip-hop (Sir Mix-A-Lot, Just-Ice, Spoonie Gee); and pop music (Debbie Gibson, Pet Shop Boys) as well as offering perspective on the racial aspects of soul and rap music with fascinating pieces on Eminem, Kid Rock, and the aforementioned Teena Marie. Most of this stuff is well-written and insightful, offering a unique perspective and personality that few music critics are wont to reveal these days. Eddy’s willingness to champion genres often ignored or outright disdained by the typical rock critic, such as metal and rap, is legendary, but he also displays a deft hand at writing about pop and even vintage music.  

Still, it’s easy to find evidence of middle-age dementia creeping into Eddy’s work. His complimentary reviews of contemporary Nashville floss like Mindy McCready, Toby Keith, and the horrible Big & Rich, among others, may read well, but they also provide cause to suspect Eddy’s critical credentials. Sure, Eddy has covered glossy pop like Michael Jackson and the Spice Girls before – and done so without a hint of irony or patronizing opinions – but his dismissal of “pseudo-traditionalist hypocrisy” as the “country party line toed by most rock critics” as an excuse to wax ecstatically about Montgomery Gentry is pure D bullshit.

Like whatever music that you wanna like, Chuck, but the Reverend is old enough to remember when Jon Rich was trying (in vein) to become a rock star in Nashville and Toby Keith was the punchline to a Music Row joke. Country music really was better back in the day of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and David Allen Coe, and its current persona as 1970s-era singer/songwriter lite-rock with twang is a slap in the face to those that came before. That’s not a party line to be drawn in the sand, that’s just reality. Coe might be one ugly sumbitch, but he can sing circles around today’s crop of country stars relying on Pro Tools and image consultants to get over with the suburban housewives that buy their records. Don’t try and sell us sour milk and claim that it’s aged whiskey…

Eddy’s critical flights of fancy notwithstanding, he’s a solid writer of no little wit and humor, and if we readers (such as yours truly) can agree to disagree on some of the dreck that he immortalizes in Rock and Roll Always Forgets, we can all find middle ground. As music critics go, Chuck Eddy has always been a bit of a provocateur, and his tendency to risk ridicule with absurdist or unpopular critical stances is what has always made him an engaging and intelligent writer. Rock and Roll Always Forgets certainly includes its share of those questionable moments, but it’s also an entertaining and informative look back at the past quarter-century of popular music. (Duke University Press, published August 10th, 2011)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2011

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