by Michael Goldberg
Monday November 12, 2001
Thoughts Of A Rock Critic
Four decades on, rock criticism is still (barely) alive.
Amazing though it may now seem, there was once a time when there was no such thing as rock 'n' roll, and even more shocking no rock critics either. I was lucky enough to have been born in 1953, as rock 'n' roll was about to sweep the world via Elvis. And so I was also there for the birth of rock criticism, something I've devoted my life to, for better or worse.
I have been thinking about rock criticism lately not just because I edit a reviews section at Neumu (neumu.net), but because a writer, rock critic and college student interviewed me recently for a school project about rock criticism. There's nothing quite like being interviewed to focus your thoughts.
Rock criticism is an interesting beast. Though the music rock 'n' roll was first thought of as disposable noise for teenagers, some of those teenagers turned into intellectuals who attended college (some even became professors) and who never lost their appreciation for rock (and pop and all the various permutations). They became rock critics.
When I was 14, there were three main forums for rock criticism: Creem, Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone (which was first published in the summer of 1967). (New York's Village Voice created an excellent reviews section as well.) As a fan of rock music, I was eager to learn all I could about the artists I loved. I read everything I could find, and became a fan of rock criticism.
During the late '60s a group of extremely talented writers quickly defined what rock criticism was, and what it could be. Among the best were Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Ed Ward, R. Meltzer, John Morthland, Robert Christgau, Ellen Willis, Dave Marsh, Paul Nelson, Robert Palmer, Nick Tosches, Paul Williams, Billy Altman, Robot Hull and Robert Duncan.
These and others took inspiration from the music itself, pushing the boundaries of what a review could be. While Marcus tended to take a more traditional approach to criticism, finding revelations in the music that moved him and conveying them to his readers, Ward at times wrote pieces of pure fiction that captured the essence of what he heard.
I idealized rock critics in my youth. I imagined the coolest of the cool, being well paid to spend all their time listening to records and writing about them. I imagined these writers having as much time as they needed to perfect their reviews. To be a rock critic, I thought, would truly be a wonderful thing.
Lester Bangs is the likely the world's best-known rock critic, to some extent because he died of an overdose. I was a fan of Lester's writing, even exchanged some correspondence with him while he was editing Creem (he encouraged me to send reviews to him); as an editor at the San Francisco magazine Boulevards in 1980 I paid him a small fee for the right to reprint a wonderful feature on Captain Beefheart that he'd written for the Village Voice.
But Lester wasn't the greatest rock critic, he was just one of them. It's a funny thing about death though. Because he is dead, Lester can live on as larger than life. The rock critic who decided to form a band and walk it like he talked it. The rock critic who faced off with Lou Reed. Who wasn't afraid to rave about ZZ Top when almost no one else thought they were worth a damn.
Most of the others are still alive. The writers I mentioned above were/are excellent writers. Each had/has a unique style; each found their voice, and as you read their work over time, you came to feel that you knew them. Some have had quite a bit of success; their non-fiction books are published with regularity. Others have managed all right, while others have had a harder time. Like teachers, rock critics don't get a whole lot of respect in the U.S. of A.
As a teenager living in Marin County in the late '60s I had the opportunity to meet some of the critics whose writings I so admired, including Ed Ward, John Morthland and Dave Marsh. Rock critics, it turned out, were, well, people, not gods. They seemed to be a lot like me they had ever-growing record and book collections, read everything they could find about so-called popular music and loved to argue about artists, records, songs anything, really, that had to do with music. They also didn't seem to make much money, and some of them sold off the review copies of albums they didn't want so they could buy groceries.
In the early days, a critic would, on occasion, write an immense essay about an album, along the lines of a 20,000-word piece on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds that Paul Williams wrote in 1994. Or Greil Marcus' book about Dylan and the Band's "Basement Tapes" recordings.
But as rock journalism became more commercial (and as Rolling Stone's circulation edged toward a million readers), in-depth critical writing gave way to the consumer-guide approach we now see in Entertainment Weekly and elsewhere. The Voice's reviews area seemed to lose its center where once the writing was dense, at times difficult, but always on the mark, it became simply difficult, dense and pointlessly eccentric.
The worst kind of current rock criticism isn't criticism at all. It's more of a buying-guide approach. You read those kinds of reviews all the time. They provide some facts about the album, tell you if its good or not and that's about it. The great rock criticism enlightens. You read a good critic's insights into what an album is about or how a song makes him or her feel, and it adds to your own experience of that album. The great critics are able to capture some of the feeling of listening to the music in their prose. You end up having to hear the album, not because the writer told you it was good, but because what the writer had to say about the music was so inspiring.
These days, the best rock criticism is found in offbeat publications. I find impassioned writing in Punk Planet, in Magnet, in No Depression, sometimes in the New Yorker (by Nick Hornby!), sometimes in the Sunday New York Times, sometimes in Spin. Greil Marcus' column in Interview is always worth reading. Until it was recently killed, Billy Altman's review section at SonicNet was a must-read, and I like to think that my own reviews section at Neumu is keeping the flame alive.
Michael Goldberg is the co-founder and editor in chief of Neumu. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.
© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.