Kill Your Idols, a book of essays that re-examines 34 albums that have been blessed/cursed with the title "classic," has the subtitle A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics. It could have just as easily been subtitled A Little Something to Piss Everybody Off.
Getting under readers' skin is clearly one of the goals, some might even say favorite pastimes, of Jim DeRogatis, the co-editor of Kill Your Idols and the author of three books on music including the Lester Bangs bio Let It Blurt. In his foreward to Kill Your Idols, DeRogatis uses the 1979 Greil Marcus-edited collection Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island as a launching point of sorts. Stranded coaxed 20 music writers ranging from Bangs and Nick Tosches to Janet Maslin and Robert Christgau into sharing essays about their all-time favorite albums. Consider Kill Your Idols to be Stranded's evil twin--as DeRogatis says, "A savage but well-considered critique of a piece of art that you love gets your blood flowing." It's 2004, and this new generation of writers gathers not to praise classic albums but to rip 'em a new one.
The size of the hole rendered depends on the contributor. In music terms, Kill Your Idols is like a compilation CD that spotlights an eclectic label on which the acts range from meticulous jazz musicians to the sneeringest of punks. Some of the writers rather delicately dissect their subjects, while others are as subtle as a gob of spit to the face. For example, Burl Gilyard's take on Dark Side of the Moon seems downright polite compared to some of the surrounding carnage, and Anders Smith Lindall finds almost as much to like as to dislike in his re-evaluation of Nirvana's Nevermind.
On the opposite end of the venom-o-meter, David Sprague tears into Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run as if Mary in "Thunder Road" had slammed his thumb--or something even more sensitive--in that screen door. Sprague proves to be generous with his criticism, taking time to slap around bassist Gary Tallent ("the ironically named...") and pianist Roy Bittain ("perhaps the fussiest bar-band ivory-tinkler to make it out of the tip-jar circuit") as well as the Boss. Not to be outdone, Rob O'Connor, in his Born in the U.S.A. essay (yes, Springsteen gets double-dipped), takes on the whole E Street Band, suggesting that its "sole charm is that of a unionized New Jersey bar band where every member must play on every song or else management gets fined. Someone get Clarence a tambourine so at least it looks like he's working."
And then there are the times when things get nasty. After opening her immolation of Gram Parsons' GP and Grievous Angel records with a reminder that Parsons' corpse was set afire in the Mojave Desert, Chrissie Dickinson writes, "Too bad nobody saw fit to light a fire under Saint Gram's ass when he was still alive." Impressively, she maintains that level of iconoclastic fury for seven and a half more pages.
There are some more recent albums covered (News & Observer music critic David Menconi dissects Radiohead's OK Computer with the clinical precision befitting such a frigid and sterile work), but the majority of victims are from what DeRogatis depicts as a kind of rock-music canon, such works as the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Exile on Main St. and perennial list-topper Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In one of my favorite essays, Steve Knopper revisits The Who's Tommy, and in doing so displays the three elements that I look for in critical writing: passion, humor and insight. Knopper outs himself as a Who obsessive and even admits to going through phases where he wanted to "rewrite Tommy as a cohesive narrative." However, he continues, "Somewhere during high school, you realize that sitting around rewriting old rock operas doesn't get you any dates." But when Knopper's not poking fun at himself (or Roger Daltrey), he acts on the need to rethink "Fiddle About" after Peter Townshend's recent revelations. That said, when it comes to tackling thorny issues head on, nothing tops Arsenio Orteza's thought-provoking analysis of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, his probing an effort to surface racism in all its forms and shadings.
In keeping with the spirit of ragging that drives the book, I have a few beefs myself. The first involves the contribution from co-editor Carmel Carrillo (DeRogatis' wife) in which, instead of writing about a classic album, she assigns songs to summarize her relationships with boyfriends past. It's a pleasant enough read, but it doesn't belong in this book. It belongs in, I don't know, Resurrect Your Flames: A New Generation of Rock Writers Make Mix Tapes About Their Old Boyfriends and Girlfriends. And the back-and-forth about The Best of the Doors between DeRogatis and Newsweek music critic Lorraine Ali exhales the type of self-congratulatory air (Hey look, I just compared Jim Morrison to Ashton Kutcher!) that the pair would attack mercilessly if encountered in a music artist.
At the end of her piece on Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (which finds a generation spending as much time under the microscope as the examined album), Allison Augustyn echoes DeRogatis' claim from the foreward, closing with "It feels kind of good to be pissed off, doesn't it?" Yep. Gets the blood flowing.
The Independent Weekly talked with David Menconi, N&O music critic and author of the novel Off the Record, about the Kill Your Idols project.
IW: How did you get involved?
DM: Probably like early fall, (Jim DeRogatis) sent out an e-mail to a bunch of people that said, "Kill Your Idols wants and needs you." I was just one of several score of people he approached. The e-mail had a little pitch, basically the introduction and a few sample chapters, one of which was DeRogatis' own on Sgt. Pepper's. I shot him back "Hey, can I do OK Computer?" which has always been a record the appeal of which has just mystified me. He said sure, and it was as simple as that. I'm not sure how heavy the editing process was; mine pretty much went in untouched. My understanding is that for some of them it was a little bit more blood-on-the-walls than that. But it was pretty quick and dirty.
IW: Just to speculate on that editing: Do you think it was more "You need to be nastier?"
DM: (laughs) A book like this, there's simply no person on earth that's going to agree with everything in this book. It's sort of set up to be self-contradictory, which is very much DeRogatis' style. He's kind of a contrarian and a bomb-thrower. It was basically "What kind of argument can you make?" Not is it right or wrong, but does it make sense? Is it plausible?
IW: What would have been next on your list after OK Computer?
DM: Probably Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which is probably fitting, given how many times I saw a variation of the phrase "Punk Floyd" in stories about OK Computer. I've gone back and forth on Dark Side over the years, but for about the past decade I have utterly despised Pink Floyd.
IW: Well, I've had a good time reading the book the last couple of days.
DM: Yeah, it's fun. I think about a third of them are really good, a third of them are kind of "uh," and a third of them are just completely wrong-headed. I'll keep it to myself which is which.
David Menconi will read from Kill Your Idols at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Thursday, July 15 at 7 p.m.
Defend your idols
The Independent Weekly asked Kill Your Idols contributors David Menconi of the News & Observer and Asheville-based freelance writer Fred Mills (whose essay second-guesses Neil Young's Harvest) to each defend a "reconsidered" album. Indy music writer Grayson Currin was also asked to weigh in.
The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main St. (1972, Rolling Stone Records)
Take the influences the Rolling Stones spent their first decade aping--Chuck Berry, Slim Harpo, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters--puree them with a heaping helping of rock-star decadence, and you have the ultimate in sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock 'n' roll. Exile has the best individual songs the Stones have ever recorded (most notably "Rocks Off" and "Tumbling Dice"), and a druggy vibe that is damn near contagious. It might be the only album in rock 'n' roll history capable of inducing hangovers all by itself. --David Menconi
Patti Smith, Horses (1975, Arista Records)
"Music is a miracle," my colleague Melanie Haupt writes in her essay on Patti Smith's Horses, subsequently detailing why she thinks the album isn't miraculous at all, but mundane. For me, however, Horses ignited a revolution in my mind that still rages, Smith's free-form probing of the rock/sex/art intersect a key influence upon my eventual choice of career. "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine": whew, talk about taking responsibility for your life in a manner that 12-step programs or therapy regimens won't touch--now that's a miracle. --Fred Mills
Radiohead, OK Computer (1997, Capitol Records)
OK Computer is, of course, a concept album, meaning that every moment doesn't have to spring forth with the memorable melodies to be found on any U2 singles collection, which, of course, one would certainly treasure if that same one considered The Bends this band's masterpiece when it is a stepping stone to its most iconoclastic and imaginative (even if confounding and difficult) work. --Grayson Currin