“If I had to renounce my dilettantism, it is in howling that I would specialize.” E.M. Cioran
“All art,” wrote the 19th century English art critic Walter Pater, “aspires toward the condition of music. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” to be exact.” Okay, so Walter didn’t actually throw in the Led Zeppelin part. Rock’n’roll hadn’t been invented yet.
But I agree with old Walter about music being the most perfect of art forms; Foghat’s “Slow Ride” is the proof. You couldn’t have convinced me of this fact as a child because the only music I’d ever heard was my mom’s instrumental “Burt Bacharach with strings” 8-tracks. She would play them over and over when I was pretending to be sick in order to stay home from school in order to punish me for pretending to be sick in order to stay home from school. My mother discovered the sure cure for hooky, and let me tell you it hurt.
Ah, but then I heard “Layla” and as Lou Reed once sang my life was saved by rock’n’roll. And “Layla” was followed by Mott the Hoople and David Bowie and I was magically transported from my tiny hometown on the Pennsylvania side of the Mason-Dixon Line to a dizzying world the vastnesses of which I understood it would take me a lifetime to explore. Rock music made me want to live fast and die dumb and by the time I had my driver’s license I was going full-tilt boogie down the Fish and Game Road in my old man’s retired gas company truck, defying death at Crabb’s Corner with Ian Hunter on 8-track crying, “I’ve wanted to do this for years!”
Which is just another way of saying rock’n’roll locked me up and threw away the key, and I’ve been its happy prisoner ever since. It’s a familiar story. If you’re reading this it’s probably your story too.
This book constitutes a culling of my writings for The Vinyl District, and stands before you thanks to the kindness of Jon Meyers, the poor fellow damned to act as my editor. In said book I attempt to pass myself off as a formidable rock critic, but the results are about what you’d expect from a fellow who spent his formative years smoking pot with pig farmers. Frankly I’m shocked to discover I’ve lived long enough to write it. Drive shitfaced at breakneck speed through enough moonless cornfields in a pig farmer’s El Camino with the lights off and sooner or later you’re likely to find yourself sitting at the bottom of a farm pond. The Good Lord smiles on idiots.
I’m no expert in the field of musicology; at best I’m a howling dilettante. I can’t read music and I’m unfamiliar at best with large swathes of rock history and my only experience as a real live rock’n’roller was as lead singer for a band called Lesbian Boy. I wasn’t much of a singer and I liked to distract people from this fact by pouring hot wax down my pants and dashing out of clubs on cold nights in a state of undress with my microphone to serenade startled passersby. If Lesbian Boy had an ethos it was this: why suffer for our art when others could do it for us?
But I’m not going to let mere ignorance keep me from having my unreconstituted say. I’ve paid my rock’n’roll dues, worn holes in the soles of my rock’n’roll shoes. I’ve suffered through concerts by the Doobie Brothers and Kansas and England Dan and John Ford Coley and if sitting through an England Dan and John Ford Coley concert isn’t paying your dues I don’t know what is. I saw Blue Oyster Cult on acid and lost my shit when they broke into “Godzilla” because the drummer put on a Godzilla head and I thought he was Godzilla. A whole lot of pig farmers and bikers got a big laugh when I screamed my way to the safety of the far wall of the Harrisburg Farm Show Arena. I even saw Devo on Thorazine. Thorazine is hardly what you’d call a recreational drug but Devo were great and I had a lot of fun drooling along.
More importantly, I’m an enthusiast. I didn’t spend all those hours bonged out of my gourd in the backseat of my older brother’s beleaguered brown Volkswagen listening to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars for nothing. I love rock’n’roll just as much as Joan Jett does, and I suspect I love it more than James Taylor and Kenny Loggins put together. And I want to share my love for rock’n’roll with you, dear reader.
That said, I’m no blind idolater at the feet of rock’n’roll. I prefer to approach my beloved in the spirit of smiling snark. The history of rock is littered with dim bulbs and pretentious twits, and I like to poke at both egos and pretentions. I can think of few things funnier than Rick Wakeman’s concept albums about King Arthur and the six wives of Henry VIII; they’re the best argument ever made for a return to the Dark Ages. The same goes for the Renaissance Faire Richie Blackmore. And don’t even get me started on the band Renaissance. I suppose what I’m trying to say is I write to amuse because I find rock’n’roll amusing, and why not return the favor?
I can also get bona fide testy on occasion, because some forms of snobbish pretention—Sting referencing Nabokov, for instance—make me as irritable as John Oates when people suggest his only real contribution to Hall and Oates is his mustache. (This is true, by the way.) And I’m not afraid to heap fawning praise upon those artists—such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Killdozer, David Bowie, and the Dictators—who make me happy.
I’ve written extensively about rock music for such newspapers as the Washington Post and the Washington City Paper but I’ve most enjoyed writing for The Vinyl District because the good folks at said publication give me free reign to say any stupid thing I want. The Vinyl District gives me enough rope to hang myself with, and then some. I can be myself, which is to say catty, biased, vitriolic, and discursive to a fault.
Hell, they even let me make stuff up. Where else could I have published a piece about kidnapping Bob Dylan and grilling him about the whereabouts of his long lost sense of humor? And what other publication would have allowed me to write a piece about tracking down Eric Carmen—driven as gaga as Colonel Kurtz by his failure to score that big number one single—in the jungles of Cambodia? You have to go the whole way back to Lester Bangs’ Creem years to discover an outlet for writing that will let you do that.
What else? While my opinions on the classics are probably no more perverse than yours they are perverse, and your thoughts upon reading some of my reviews may well run along the lines of, “What a moron.” I insult the sacred memory of John Lennon, snipe at the huggable Grateful Dead, lambast my idol Bobby Dylan, and even besmirch the sacred memory of my hero David Bowie. I once managed to piss off not just one or two but hundreds of irate Little Feat fans, and I wish I could have included some of the truly mean hate mail I’ve received from apoplectic ELP fans over the years. A savage race, your ELP fans. They have thin skins and you would do well to think twice before crossing them. That said they’ve never threatened to punch me in the kisser. That honor goes to a fella named Henry Rollins.
Do my scribblings serve any useful social, ethical or moral function? Probably not. But then I’ve always been a fan of the French poet Charles Baudelaire, who said, “Being a useful man has always seemed to me to be something truly hideous.” If my jottings provoke mirth or rage they’ll have served their purpose, if they can be said to have a purpose. I write for the sheer joy of writing, and out of love for the greatest art form this side of macramé.
A brief word on the reviews I’ve seen to include within these pages. As a brief perusal of the Table of Contents reveals, this book is what could be called a virtual white male enclave. This is shameful, I know. But I swear I’m not a misogynist or bigot. I’ve written many reviews about black and female artists, from Nina Simone to Patti Smith to Funkadelic to Wilson Pickett to the Crystals, and the list goes on and on. But I’ve reserved most of my spleen for white male artists and this book is called Kneecapping the Classics for a reason. I wanted it to be catty and I’m at my cattiest when writing about shallow white guys toiling under the fatal misconception that they’re deep. I don’t pretend to be deep and I’ll be damned if I’ll let some other idiot get away with it. Hopefully I will get the opportunity to produce another tome at a future date, one that focuses on women and artists of color. Rock’n’Roll would never have existed without them, and I’m well aware of this fact.
In parting allow me to quote the great Lady Gaga, who once told Vanity Fair, “I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone, they’re going to take my creativity from me through my vagina.” I’m not certain her words have anything to do with this book, but they always make me smile. Oh, and let us not forget the immortal words of that greatest of all rockers Little Richard, who summed up his halcyon days with the words, “The only thing I liked better than a big penis was an even bigger penis.” That just about sums up the glory of rock’n’roll for me, and I hope it sums it up for you as well.