Entry for August 22, 2005

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I was in a bookstore a few weeks ago and was thumbing through a big fat music book called Sonic Cool, written by one Joe Harrington.

In it, I came across a passage that made me giggle:

“In a revelatory article entitled `Rock Critics: Why They’re Morons,’ published in CREEM in 1987 just before the magazine went down for good, writer Hercules `Archie’ Bovis makes a good point:…”

Forgive me for not mentioning writer Bovis’s good point—man, was it good, the guy’s a genius!—but as a former editor of CREEM, I was compelled to go back home and dig that article up and check it out for myself.

Revelatory is right! It was a piece I wrote, after I’d left the magazine, when my good buddies the editors had a ‘content hole” and needed somebody to fill it in a jiffy. If I remember correctly, I found the pseudonym in a sample news story included as part of the Xywrite word processing program in the computer I was using at Billboard, where I then worked. Just dug that the quotation marks were around the middle name instead of the first. (Sample pick-up line: “Hi! You can call me Archie, but my real name is Hercules!”)

By the tone of the piece, you can see why leaving CREEM for a real job at Billboard was a no-brainer for me at the time. Little did I suspect that no good records at all would be released for the next 19 years!!

Anyway, here’s the piece as it ran:

ROCK CRITICS: WHY THEY’RE MORONS

By Hercules “Archie” Bovis

I am a fan of rock ’n’ roll. I like to listen to it. I have listened to it for years.

I don’t like to read about it.

I have read about it for many years, and what I read is usually poorly written. Almost always, it is poorly written. When it isn’t poorly written, it is filled with poor judgment by rock critics who have misinformed, second-hand opinions.

However, as you are now reading this, and I am writing it–all because John Mendelssohn, who normally fills this space, is not filling it–perhaps I had best explain myself further. In case you think I may be wrong.

Let’s run it down point by point:

I: THE “HISTORY” OF ROCK IS WARPED

Best illustrated, of course, by an issue of Rolling Stone a few months back which purported to document “The 100 Best Albums Of The Last 20 Years.” It was as good an example as any of the current critical consensus about the best rock albums ever made.

The article was full of shit.

II: WHY

The majority of people who now write about rock music for a living are under 35 years old, mostly because the pay is so crummy. The ones who are older–and they’re getting less and less in number–usually pull down full-time pay at a daily newspaper, work for non-music magazines, or else have a “real” job in some other, unrelated field. If not, they are very likely socially maladjusted. It doesn’t really matter.

The bulk of those under-35 critics grew up reading magazines like this one, Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Fusion, Changes, Hullaballoo/Circus, Hit Parader or a few others. Most of those magazines usually contained the writing of the same, say, 25 people–including Mendelssohn, Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, Paul Nelson, Lenny Kaye, Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer, and a limited number of others. Go buy issues of these magazines from about ’68 to ’73, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Anyway, it is a very safe bet to say that this group of 25 people combined formed what is now regarded as The Way Rock Went Down In History. In other words, together they assigned random bands such as the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, and Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band incredible importance in rock’s scheme of things. Likewise, when things were dull, they droned way too loudly about performers like Rod Stewart, the Who, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and more.

The important part comes next. All of today’s under-35s absorbed these opinions in their formative years–and they trusted them completely. So completely, in fact, that this “new” breed of rock writers never learned to go back and listen to that era’s critically-lauded music without always being conscious of its alleged greatness. Thus, whenever these under-35s critique current music, their past reference points (Revolver, Dylan & The Band, James Brown’s Apollo recordings, even Exile On Main Street) make “historic” sense, and re-establish what was, by and large, a spontaneous opinion generated by someone like Lester Bangs when he needed to write three more pages of copy–copy that has, by accident, become history.

In short, if you want to know the opinion of every rock writer now in the business, find one of Rolling Stone‘s paperback record review collections–preferably from the ’68-’73 era–and you’ll know. Visualize, if you will, the under-35 rock writer as a human meat grinder, with the unchopped meat represented by Documented Rock History, the writer’s “new” opinion the homogenized, potential sausage or hamburger patty spewed out on the keys of his or her typewriter–and, eventually, the printed page

III: OLD CRITICS NO BETTER

By no means does this imply that only those rock writers over 35 know what they’re talking about. Indeed, even back in those days, as they were writing what would become historical rock criticism, they were continually conscious of their peers’ opinions of their own critical accuracy. Witness how the perception of Elvis Presley changed in the 10 years since his death: people who once scoffed at the artist began to write books about him, continually revising their opinions until, in 1987, you will not find a single rock writer who will admit to ever thinking Presley was less than All That Is Rock.

What happened? Why did they change their minds? Do you think you will ever see a well-known, respected rock writer not give a shit and plainly state that Presley’s importance to the music itself was minimal compared to his sociological relevance? If you know rock music, you’re not supposed to feel that way.

Critics’ revisionist antics are hilarious. Even Robert Christgau, probably the most astute rock critic out there, could not resist revising the grades of the albums he reviewed in his Consumer Guide column when all were collected for publication in book form. Maybe he would call it hindsight; what it really was, though, was his not wanting to look foolish because he was caught up in the Myth Of What Is Good. And maybe he wanted to stop liking artists he’d previously liked when it was historically appropriate to stop liking them.

IV: IT’S ONLY TIMELY ONCE

“Sociological relevance.” Putting too many words in quotation marks is either the mark of a poor writer or a borderline schizophrenic; I hate to do it. But those two words have rendered the bulk of rock writing totally useless.

Rolling Stone voted the Sex Pistols’ one album the second best album of the past 20 years. It sucked. What was important was what it “stood for.”

Remember when “The Message” was voted #1 Single Of The Year by a large group of American Rock Writers? Ask an American Rock Writer when he or she last listened to it. Then ask them which is better–“The Message” or “Friday On My Mind” by the Easybeats. They’ll get very uneasy; it’s called cognitive dissonance.

In fact, Christgau’s famous, annual year-end Village Voice critics’ poll–that’s what we’re talking about here–is the ultimate case in point. As the number of voters has grown over the years to encompass rock writers at daily newspapers, fanzines, etc., the poll winners have become embarrassingly predictable and, most often, laughable.

Rap artists like L.L. Cool J, Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys, by common consensus, make 1986’s “best” records; next year, if each artist makes an even better record, let alone one just as good, it won’t make any difference at all, they’ll end up in the Top 15, and in two years probably won’t be there at all. Just ask someone like Richard Thompson, King Sunny Ade, or Paul Simon–all who have placed highly or been totally absent in different years’ polls, all with their own series of albums that, on a purely musical level, were equally as innovative or interesting.

In other lines of work, it’s what’s known as following the party line. Christgau or any other influential writer gives the nod to an act, and if it’s early enough in the year, say, his opinion will be absorbed and rewritten by the 400 rock writers who saw it and were then obliged to have their own opinions. Then they’ll vote in the year-end poll. Those who don’t agree with any particular aspect of the party line–that think rap is extremely dull, or feel the Replacements are just a mite too derivative–usually avoid discussing their feelings about such bands to save face, to not look foolish in front of their peers who have bought the myth. Rock history is then set in stone.

V: THE SOLUTION?

So rock criticism is useless.

It’s no big deal, and it’s certainly the way it’s going to be from now on–or until MTV and USA Today and People magazine render rock magazines, and the opinions of rock writers themselves, even less meaningful than they are today, and they then vanish completely.

Get used to it. Don’t get shamed into liking anything that stinks. Your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s–and probably more so, since you don’t make money writing about this stuff for a living.

One of the meanings of the word leech is, “One who clings to another to draw gain from him.” Rock critics like to make lots of analogies.

(Hercules “Archie” Bovis currently edits Touch It, a rock fanzine based in Ionia, Michigan, and was editor of Pig List from 1975-82.)

[from CREEM, December 1987]

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One Response to “Entry for August 22, 2005”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Yo Bovis. Excellent points all around. What a great piece and totally applicable to today’s dumbed down, Blender boobfest media. My vote(s) for today’s most overrated, totally sucky albums and artists that have somehow become the most praised/watched acts by trolls like Toure and Craig Marks: 50 Cent, Game, White Stripes, Bloc Party (okay, some good songs), Coldplay, and Black Eyed Peas. Pile on rock critics!

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