Confessions of an Aging Rock Critic
IT'S TOO LATE TO STOP NOW
A Rock and Roll Journal
By Jon Landau
Straight Arrow. 227 pp. $3.95
In "Confessions of an Aging Rock Critic," the final essay in this collection, Jon Landau says: "Critics are often failed artists of some sort. Most of the rock writers I know play an instrument; several have been in bands." Now, this is true of Landau himself, and no doubt of his acquaintances, but it is not true in general. It is not true, for instance, of me and my acquaintances. In fact, there isn't one failed musician among the rock critics I admire most. Frustrated novelists, perhaps, although most of us write about rock because fiction hasn't compelled us for a long time. Rock seems so much more--please pardon the expression--relevant, with all the cultural connections that are inevitably linked to its intrinsic excitement. Ignorant of music theory, we write about popular music simply as members of the populace.
Landau was one of the first rock critics, working at the beginning for Crawdaddy! and then moving on to Rolling Stone. He writes as a record producer and ex-musician. As an analyst of the guts (or machinery) of rock and roll he has no peer. This can be very useful. It's nice to go back to a record you've enjoyed casually and understood how a drum break or stereo separation that Landau noticed makes it work; and even though technical expertise isn't necessary to such insights--musical illiterates like Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs make them all the time--it certainly helps. And only a critic like Landau can observe authoritatively that, for instance, the Motown sound depends on sophisticated chord changes and a "relentless four-beat drum pattern." He is especially acute when he applies both kinds of analysis to music he really knows and loves, as in his definitive piece on Wilson Pickett.
Let me emphasize that example. Landau's essay on Wilson Pickett is definitive. Yet when I gave it to a Pickett fan not long ago, I came back five minutes later and found the fan asleep. It did not really surprise me. For one thing, Landau is not a very interesting writer. Over the years, his style has evolved from the clubfooted to the pedestrian, but even now it is always colorless and frequently graceless. (A late random sample: "Through his demeanor, speech and attitude, Sly conveys the impression of a man teetering on the brink.") More important, he seems disinclined to link music to culture with any vigor. Throughout his long analysis of Motown, he never explores the relationship between black music and white market that the observation I citied so clearly indicates. He doesn't suggest how the chief musical virtue of Carole King's "Tapestry" (clean, forceful production) might mesh with its verbal emphasis on the value of simple friendship. And so forth.
Landau does have a good head for the thematic core of an artist's work as well as for technique. My complaint is that he doesn't connect them intricately enough. Larger connections are even harder to find in his work, especially the connection between the critic himself and the music he loves. The admixture of black music and white audience is the most basic mystery of rock and roll, and few critics would be better qualified to discuss it than Landau, whose involvement in black music is so intense. Yet he never does.
I suppose this amounts to a presumptuous suggestion that Landau write a different kind of criticism than he has chosen to write. Very well then. The crucial presumption of this "different kind of criticism" is that such suggestions are a critic's real work. In the '30s, leftish partisans like Lionel Trilling and Philip Rahv used the tools of the rival New Critics to construct a more broad-based sort of cultural analysis around literature. In rock, where the artistic content is somewhat less abstruse and the cultural impact so massive, a similar project is required, and the project is clearly one that Landau could undertake.
It is significant that by these different standards the best piece in this book--in which Landau deals with questions of a size he rarely attempts, such as how a star's self-image and public image affect each other and the star's art, how art affects audience, and even Landau's personal stake in the work--concerns boxing, about which Landau is knowledgeable but not expert. I wish he would write about music that way--with his technical perception, he would be the complete rock critic. But it may just be that in popular culture, expertise inhibits ambitious writing, rather than encouraging it.
Book World, Jan. 7, 1973