In this edition of SSO we focus on people who have written and drawn and made music that has influenced the best of their chosen mediums. Even if they themselves are often only talked about (often feverishly) by people so fully immersed in the expression of similarly robust ideas about creativity, freedom, and the cool weird points of view which cast spells over entire artistic cultures. The books below are must-haves for learning the language of discernment and delight when it comes to writing about pop and semi-popular music, and underground comics.
For years, I read The New Yorker just for Pauline Kael’s essay-length coverage of new movies, and often wished there was also a rock critic who had her unique abilities in that realm of reviews. Kael at her best could be personable but not pushy, mindful and not manipulative of her readers, sharing a love for the medium with the substance of someone who had lived enough to have something to say. It just seemed that in her deep dish, grateful-to-be-exploring-film reviews Kael had one-upped most of the counter-culture fanzine-style rock critics who tried to hard to appear flippant and rebellious, or weening and verbose.
Little did I know that that very magazine had Ellen Willis, who had been their first popular music critic, hired in 1968 to scribe her column, Rock, Etc. It ran for several years, but I was too young to read her original columns, and so my first and for many years only occurrence in reading her was in the book Stranded, a multi-author desert island disc anthology edited by Greil Marcus which also featured many of the most read names in rock criticism of the 70s. (The book really holds up well, overall, and with Paul Nelson’s outstanding testimony of love for Jackson Browne, shows that great writing doesn’t have to be about alternative music. And that essays on rock albums made several decades ago are still well worth reading.)
Willis’s own contribution to Stranded, which is included in the extraordinary new collection of her work, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press), challenged everything I thought I knew about my very favorite band, the Velvet Underground. She saw and described an innate spirituality and beauty in their work where I only felt transgression; this was the first rock writing that literally blew my mind, with this paragraph:
“What it comes down to for me -- as a Velvets fan, a lover of rock-and-roll, a New Yorker, an aesthete, a punk, a sinner, a sometime seeker of enlightenment (and love) (and sex) -- is this: I believe that we are all, openly or secretly, struggling against one or another kind of nihilism. I believe that body or spirit are not really separate, though it often seems that way. I believe that redemption is never impossible and always equivocal. But I guess that I just don’t know.” (Page 65.)
Though it won’t be out till May (get your pre-orders in!), this is one to get in line for. With an introduction by influential current TNY music staff writer and musician Sasha Frere-Jones, the book was edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (The Nation, Salon, other classy forums of thought) and has an afterward by Billboard Pro’s Evie Nagy along with Daphne Carr (editor of the Best New Music series and the current 33 1/3, for Pretty Hate Machine), Carr and Nagy have put together special panels for Willis and KISS respectively at the yearly Pop Conference, and their passionate devotion is shown in their final piece in the book. Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a dense assortment of unexpected philosophical thrills and extremely wonderful writing. Which not only had a huge effect on the ambitious music critics of rock’s second and third generations, such as Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs, but is truly made full in the feminist voices and more multi-cultural viewpoints of the editors and writers for today’s magazines and websites. It is impossible to imagine the sociological shattering of BITCH, the sex positive yet savvy aesthetics of BUST, or the great interview-articles in places such as Esquire, GQ, Village Voice, and elsewhere without Willis’ inspiration and still-fresh observations and suggestions.
I have had previous books by Willis, such as Beginning To See The Light, and loved them for their audacious thought yet reasonable, working class-friendly leftism, but now I have keen first-hand accounts of so many miraculous moments in rock history. There is nothing like reading a thoughtful woman finding Bowie a little superficial in his first few years (that live review must have stung when it was run), a surprisingly empathetic and humane treatment of the travails and public assaults of Bob Dylan, or how women’s music was both going to smother itself and yet plant the seeds for raw, revolutionary rock and roll to come. If you’re going to buy one single author rock writing anthology this year, it should be this one (but you should buy two, as Fantagraphics is coming out with a Paul Nelson collection as well this fall).
Speaking of Fantagraphics, and just to toggle in creative expressions a bit, I’d love to now plug Patrick Rosenkranz’s gorgeous and finely detailed study of underground cartoonist Rand Holmes in the colorful (in many senses of the word) collection The Artist Himself. It’s a smorgasbord of senses working overtime, the coffee table book of the year for raunch-loving pop art fans and literary hedonists alike. Thing is, I barely knew this guy existed till this book came out, his ground-breaking, extremely well-designed and weirdly idiosyncratic work for comics such as Slow Death, Dope Comix, Grateful Dead Comix, and Gay Comix having also gone largely out of print till now.
Like Willis, Holmes was forgotten for a bit by the marketplace, if only by name (Rick Altergott and others certainly carried on his traumatizing topics and 50s ad art-skewing style in undergrounds, though). He is also a visionary who links his personal obsessions with the spiritual desires of his fellow citizens, even if his results end up in far harsher realms. For example, “Mean Old Man,” about his father, is lacerating; “And Here He Is, The Artist Himself” as hilariously improvisatory yet self-deprecating as anything by Dan Clowes or Chris Ware. Yet “Killer Planet” and “Hitler’s Cocaine” are just awesome satires of adventure genre tales that love their subjects so much they’re as much fun to read as what they pick on (if Mad Magazine had kept being good, Rand Holmes would have been a wealthy long-time contributor). One of Canada’s best pop cult artists, Holmes lived far too hard and died way too young. I can’t imagine a better book being put together about him, though.
The Portland-based Rosenkranz (whose earlier underground comics compilation Rebel Visions is a tidy and sweet sweep of the entire field) has written a beautiful biography of the 60s-born underground cartoonist, and put together a convincing assortment of the subject’s bizarre, semi-autobiographical comics to convince anyone who needs it that there were illustrators beyond Crumb who influenced the alternative comics boom of the 90s (and can be felt in the graphic novels and Adult Swim-style animation of today).
It’s hard to imagine that some punk fans still haven’t read Jon Savage’s first-hand accounts of the creation of the Sex Pistols and the mid-late 70s punk scene in his seminal and absolutely necessary social history England’s Dreaming. Not a mere rock autobio, it actually showed the origins of an entirely new youth culture, with aesthetics defined by crime, class war, creative struggles, and a combination of cultural synchronicity that can only be experienced to be written so brilliantly of.
Savage has followed up his mighty-lauded, in-and-out-of-print classic with The England’s Dreaming Tapes (also University of Minnesota Press), which features the massive, full transcriptions of days and days of band and scene-tastemaker interview tapes, not unlike Simon Reynolds’ own superb recent collection for his post-punk profiles, Totally Wired (the chats which ended up in Rip It Up And Start Again).
Savage’s original book has had a special place in the hearts of punk history buffs, as there have been a whole lot of details misunderstood, not explained fully, and squeezed into blurbs when the actual truth spills into gutters more fascinating. This is where this huge fucking new tome following up that already big ass beauty hits its level of necessity: the inside scoop on Team Gitterbest, the marketing guerrillas who got the Pistols over on a conservative but poor population that mostly despised them; Derek Jarman’s howlingly funny accounts of the subversive Jubilee for the Queen in 1977; a great conversation with Warwick Nightingale, the original Sex Pistol (co-founder!) you’ve probably never heard of/from; the goings-on venues like the Roxy, and more. Think a UK version of We’ve Got The Neutron Bomb (the ornery and awesome LA punk oral history), but even bigger and a bit scarier.
The voices of women, gays, and more socially marginalized participants are heard more than the usual scenesters and musicians in Tapes, and I’m sure the very astute Savage knew that these viewpoints needed to be brought forward in the mix. This is a rich blessing, especially for those of us who have worn out our copies of England’s Dreaming over the years.