Monday, January 7, 2008

Born to Be Wild

Have either of you two ever heard of a music critic named Frank Kogan? I picked up a book of his (Real Punks Don't Wear Black) by chance at the Park Slope Library last week, and am kind of amazed by what I found. Kogan started out writing for his own fanzine Why Music Sucks in the mid-80s and went on to write for the Village Voice and Spin, among (not too many) other places; this is his first and only book, pieced together from over thirty years' worth of record reviews, fanzine rants and miscellaneous other writing. His style is pretty strange: he is self-consciously in the line of great early rock critics (Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, and especially Richard Meltzer, whom I've never read): that is, very chatty and pugnacious and occasionally taking off into surreal fantasies or obnoxious self-indulgence. But he's got a weirder and more singular sense of humor than any of them, as well as a more theoretical/systematic bent (some of his key concepts, helpfully defined in the preface: "the classroom/hallway split," "Superwords," "fear of contamination," "free lunch," and my favorite, "PBS").

Another difference between Kogan and the first wave of rock critics: he completely loves bubblegum, disco, early hip-hop, hair-metal, and much that they (or you or I, probably) would consider disreputable trash, and treats it no differently than he does critically canonized rock stars. He has really fascinating things to say about James Brown, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, ? and the Mysterians, Jefferson Airplane, the New York Dolls, the Stooges, the Ohio Express, Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes, Spoonie Gee, Teena Marie, L'Trimm, Guns 'N' Roses, Mariah Carey, Toby Keith, etc. He has a consuming interest in the social worlds of high school and junior high, which seem to have established the paradigm for how he hears all music (and it's not such a bad or uncommon paradigm, if you think about it). Unlike say Christgau, who really kills himself trying to be authoritative on all genres of pop, Kogan is unapologetically a dilettante, often admitting he doesn't know much about the artists he writes about (and doesn't think it matters). A point he makes often is that it's artificial to separate pop music, as music, from the world of "flirting and fighting" in which it is produced, consumed and judged. The result is that he comes up with stuff like this:

"When I was thirteen this song by Steppenwolf — first song to use the phrase 'heavy metal,' as far as I know — had a real clever line, 'If the tune makes you smile/You were born to be wild.' Actually, I'd heard it wrong (really went 'Like a true nature's child' or something); this was good, since my version was more useful. I was a hemmed-in kid; no way was I a nature's child. I mean, in my house, on my street, in my school? By my locker? At my desk? You kidding? But 'the tune makes you smile' — I can get there! From my smile to the wild. A first step, at least.
"'I just want to rock and roll all night, and party every day.' That's an old Kiss song. But back when the song was new and my wife Leslie was twelve years old (this was before we married), she heard it as, 'I just want to rock and all night, and part of every day.' OK. Again, a necessary mistake, to make the dream accessible — imaginable — to a twelve-year-old.
"'Up all night, sleep all day,' goes the song by Slaughter that's ruled Dial MTV, MTV's call-in request show, for the last month and a half. Sleep all day? For some readers, no doubt, those words are too much of a compromise (you don't even have to hear it wrong), not mitigated by the utopian 'Maybe we can just stay up twenty-four hours a day' tossed off in the middle. But, see, if you're a bubble-metal band that wants twelve-year-old girls in your demographic, you've got to give them something in their range. At fourteen, Leslie wore black leather and cheered in homeroom whenever it was announced over the intercom that the school's football team had lost. When you're fourteen, everything's possible. But twelve-year-olds have a sense of reality." (277)

Anyway, it's sort of a crazy book: besides the music writing there are autobiographical reminiscences about his attempts at political organization in high school; actual letters, poems, lyrics and journal entries from high school; footnotes to those journal entries; excerpts from emails and chatroom posts; way out-of-control social and cultural generalizations; fake fan letters to Ornette Coleman and Sherilyn Fenn; and occasional engagements with more "academic" thinkers, like Derrida, Wittgenstein and Thomas Kuhn. Almost all of it is "questionable" in the best sense of the word: Kogan, I'm sure, would encourage questions, would consider the book a failure if it didn't generate them. In other words, if you need a book that shows you a bunch of new and exciting things that criticism can do — not that it necessarily should — this is the ticket.