Going Underground

What is the point of being a mysterious underground figure if you can’t go deep underground sometimes?

If these guys could do it, why can't I?

The Stick found himself overseas and in the dark recesses of a government-sponsored program last fall (not OUR government, of course), and recovery from same has been a lengthy process through a grotesque winter.

Frankly, it was well worth it. I’m no better off physically, sure, but I met some interesting people, and many dull ones, making me feel better about myself and some of the schlubs that I hang with. I also got a chance to watch Hot Tub Time Machine.

Keeping the blog cooking was also hampered by the issue of ‘what is there to write about, anyway?’ Continuing to read all I could by the late Lester Bangs did not provide encouragement, believe me. The cream (or Creem, if you like) of Bangs’ work was among the most inspiring things on my shelf some twenty-five years ago, after I first read Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the brilliantly curated collection of Lester’s finest. But now that I’ve finally found time to crawl through the middle ground of his work, where he indulges his obsessions with Miles, the Stones, and, frankly, himself, I don’t have such a cozy feeling about the guy. Reading Bangs’ also-rans left me with a kind of psychic limp, and the impressions that first, Lester was a bit of a time-wasting jerk, not to be idolized for the waste of words that littered his life, and second, that he was right: The hell with all of this dead or hopelessly dying art anyway. It’s so far gone that even burying it won’t clear the air of its stench (and as I wrote that sentence someone named Pitbull, apparently some kind of musical performer but surely not a musician, appeared on my TV, trying to sell me a beer by saying nothing ).

But then I remembered the name of this blog. I am supposed to be piloting a lifeboat across an oil-slathered gulf and plucking people out of the ooze, or something like that, right?

And about the same time, the consumer in me returned, slowly but surely, which is really what we’re here to yap about: the whirlpool of too-popular music and far-less-than-popular music and how those things relate to all the money and space we’re obliged to manage.

Plus, a couple of things appeared on the horizon worth comment. First was the arrival of Wrecking Ball, the latest Bruce Springsteen album, and one which is particularly discomforting, at least on first blush. And then came the tsunami (that used to be a fun word) of reviews of the record. Bruce has now sidled up next to Dylan as the artist about which most writers, pro and otherwise, feel an obligation to expound upon in a record review. Think about it: How many important rock critics (Marcus, Paul Nelson, etc.) hung their names on a verbose review of a Bob Dylan record, and reaped serious rewards of cred and cool? More than I can count. And ever since Blood On The Tracks, every blow-dried cookie puss with a keyboard has been trying to use the new Dylan record as a career launching pad (see the miserable Joe Levy’s Rolling Stone review of Dylan’s less-than-worthy Modern Times album if you don’t believe me). Same deal goes for Springsteen. There is a sense that key writers need that notch in their belt to satisfy themselves that they made the right career choice. Well, not launching or legitimizing a career, to be fair. Guys with a byline atop a featured Springsteen piece are already past the lightweight class. They don’t give Bruce reviews to the last guy to move up from the mail room. More like accelerating a career, as if turning a phrase about Springsteen vaults you into a critical equivalent of the Admirals’ club at the airport.

And then there are those guys who get the chance to review Bruce over and over, as if its part of their job description, whether they have a clear perspective about his work or not. Among the reviews in that group was a particularly disgusting display of piety by the academic piglet known as Jim DeRogatis. DeRogatis has never opened his mind to Springsteen’s work, yet, thanks to his status as a long-time Chicago rock writer and radio talk-show host (a job he shares with the more affable Greg Kot), he is regularly given a platform from which to pronounce Bruce’s latest record as pompous dreck. You can see what this blowhard is up to here and note that my own retort is not among the dozen or more attacks on DeRogatis found under his review. Maybe because I referred to his bloated throat as a goiter that is big enough to stuff his own ears.

And then I found this doozy in the International Business Times, truly a clarion of rock writing, wherein the author, Palash Ghosh, ducks the chore of reviewing Wrecking Ball, and simply accuses anyone who pays attention to Bruce of being a paranoid bigot.  It’s not that you need to be an American ‘white guy’ to review Springsteen, but you need to at least acknowledge that his work measures and is most attractive to that audience, and that is not a sin anymore than allowing that The View is targeted at stay-at-home moms. And neither of those examples is exclusionary to another audience, by the way. They’re just centric and somewhat focused, as is most popular art. The good thing about calling somebody a douche bag is that I am pretty sure it translates nicely in several languages. So, hey, Palash: You’re a douche bag. Extra large, if there is such a thing, Not because you don’t get Springsteen… But because you told me I have been suckered in since 1978. I don’t think I’m that big a fool, jackass.

It’s not that Bruce should get a free pass every time he delivers a new record. My first reactions to “We Take Care Of Our Own” and a couple of the other tracks presented as early-release examples of Wrecking Ball were not complementary. Then the whole record showed up, and the picture filled in, revealing an album that is still quite troublesome, but also one that is layers deep and certainly worthwhile.

But harsh criticisms of Springsteen’s new record or his entire oeuvre, if you like, don’t serve anyone if they don’t provide the artist with enough benefit of doubt to recognize his intentions and at least the potential of some value in both the songwriting and performance. Hasn’t he at least earned that much? Haven’t we?

So I look forward to taking a stroll through Springsteen’s new songs in a future post, and soon, too, before (like all things in the 21st century) we’ve forgotten the new record was ever even made.

Stick is sticking his head out, no longer underground – “The brass bands play and feet start to pound”.

Last Album: Elvis Costello and The Attractions – Imperial Bedroom