Desert Island Dick | Music Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Desert Island Dick 

Greil Marcus sticks around to explain why the next generation's favorite albums aren't all that important.

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MAROONED: THE NEXT GENERATION OF DESERT ISLAND DISCS EDITED BY PHIL FREEMAN (DA CAPO PRESS)

In 1979, Greil Marcus edited Stranded, a collection of essays in which 20 music critics wrote about the album they'd want on a desert island if they could only have one. The book capped an era during which the first generation of American rock writers experienced the Elvis-Beatles-Sex Pistols triumvirate of musical revolutions--in fact, in the 1996 reprint of Stranded, Marcus mentions that a publisher first contacted him about the project "right about the time the Sex Pistols broke up."

For Marcus and many of his generation, including some of the critics in Stranded, the revolutions end there, if not with the Beatles. In their minds popular music no longer has the capacity to galvanize great masses of people or transform the world--everything truly meaningful happened when they were young. This particularly nasty facet of the boomer outlook has colored the music press, especially Rolling Stone, for decades. If you buy into it, it's easy to believe that subsequent generations have all been too fragmented to come together on anything.

That's why I was looking forward for so long to Marooned, this month's belated sequel to Stranded. The MO is the same--20 critics, 20 desert-island discs--but this time the writers are all post-boomers like me. Finally it's our chance to push back, to begin to extend the musical canon beyond 1979 and redefine it for the years before. The selections range across genres and decades, from Brand Nubian to Dionne Warwick to My Bloody Valentine to the Meters, and editor Phil Freeman connects some of the dots with a 40-page annotated discography, "Return to Treasure Island," that picks up where Marcus's canon-making appendix to the first book left off--his choices are almost exclusively from 1979 or later.

Seven of the 20 albums are from the 90s, and of those seven, two are part of my own personal top ten for the decade. I'm hardly alone in my affection for MBV's Loveless--by now it's up there with hoary desert-island discs like Exile on Main Street--but that does nothing to detract from the rapturous ode that Ned Raggett, tireless contributor to the All Music Guide, has written to it. And Michaelangelo Matos definitively describes the gushy overload you get dancing at a rave as he tackles History of Our World Part 1: Breakbeat & Jungle Ultramix by DJ DB--a disc that Peter Shapiro, in his review of Marooned for the Wire, calls his favorite drum 'n' bass mix, and to my ears and ass the best mix CD, period. Of course there are essays about albums I don't care for--I've long been immune to Iron Maiden's Killers and Alice Coltrane's Journey in Satchidananda, and I've never wanted to get within earshot of Stephen Stills's Manassas--but they're discussed so brilliantly here (by Ian Christe, Geeta Dayal, and Kandia Crazy Horse, respectively) that I was moved to shake the cobwebs from my personal canon and rethink a few things.

Unfortunately Marooned isn't free of Marcus's influence: he was enlisted to write the foreword, so the book's front-loaded with his bitter boomer griping about the alleged atomization of the current popular-music scene. Black kids and white kids heard Little Richard the same way, he insists, without the need for translation, whereas the best music of the past 20 years--including the records celebrated in Marooned--supposedly seals itself off from the broader public. It's as though Marcus can't recognize the many vital communities created and reinforced by modern music because they aren't the globe-spanning movements of his imagination. Or in other words, he doesn't get it, so it must be ungettable. Ugh. Even worse, he's been repeating this nonsense for ages. In a 1992 Esquire piece on the death of rock, he wrote that popular music was no longer a lingua franca. Now, 15 years and two Dylan books later, he's still gnawing on that crusty idea like a favorite bone.

What's especially infuriating about all this is that rock 'n' roll was never a lingua franca in the first place, at least not to the extent Marcus would have us believe. In fact, one of the main reasons rock could be revolutionary was that it wasn't a common language: it marked off young people from their parents (and from other young people too--notwithstanding all the mythmaking that's gone on since, not every teenager embraced rock). Furthermore, as Jeff Chang points out in his Marooned essay (he covers the Meters' self-titled 1969 album), by the time rock 'n' roll became rock--let's say '67, when Sgt. Pepper's announced the mutation of the music into a self-conscious art form--it was an overwhelmingly white phenomenon. Chang thinks a "global Blackness" in American music happened only after 1969: Santana, Bob Marley, Run-DMC.

Even more frustrating, Marcus's generational gloating about the absence of a lingua franca in pop has nothing to do with the rest of his foreword, which manages an affectionate look at the actual contents of Marooned. He praises the book's "delicate sense of how people listen to music," singling out John Darnielle's devastating meditation on Dionne Warwick's Legends. The listeners Darnielle evokes aren't looking for a revolution or a challenge--they're not long for this earth, and they need "the endless mercy of pop music" to help them face the end. The way he hears "That's What Friends Are For," it's soaked up the despair of millions of people dying from AIDS who listened to it for solace. In a truly grueling series of passages, he places himself in similarly desperate straits: someone has bashed his head in and dragged him half--conscious to his CD wall, from which he extracts Legends, and after further beatings he's dumped on a desert island, where he prays the boom box will let him hear "Deja Vu" one more time, before its batteries die or he does.

But just as often Marcus's pet ideas mean he's blindsided by the essays in Marooned--he natters on about alien tongues, though even a casual reading of the book reveals a great deal of warmth and communality. Scott Seward's moving piece on Divine Styler's Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light details how this proto-undie rap masterwork helped him pull himself out of the depths, where he'd ended up with a noose around his neck. But Marcus wastes ink quibbling. When Seward homes in on the couplet "My mentor says I've dropped too much acid / Mommy thinks I'm a psycho-spastic," making the simple assertion that "many people who hear that line don't even speak English," Marcus somehow takes him to mean that everyone needs to hear the record as if it weren't in English. Not only is this presuming a default English-speaking listener, it's ignoring the fact that Styler's music has already touched people who don't understand a word of the language.

And when it comes to Dave Queen's essay on Scorpions' Virgin Killer, hands down the best in Marooned, Marcus can only scratch his head. Granted, it is a difficult piece. For one thing, it's not an ode to one album but rather a free-associative Scorpions discography. And Queen frequently omits the words "the" and "a," simulating broken English--and making the fact that this German band sings in English (which beats the crap out of rock 'n' roll as a lingua franca) seem a lot less natural. With his allusions to the Marshall Plan and to Canada and Australia as postcolonial countries, he allows a portrait of the terrifying imperial power of America to emerge--and thus displays a profound awareness of what now needs to be dismantled in order to change the world.

Despite Marcus's obliviousness to the strengths of these essays and the pall he casts over them with his foreword--he's the best-known critic in the book, and for some readers still the most authoritative--they steadfastly resist his narrative of fragmentation. These writers believe in the power of music, even in the power of music recorded after 1979. Their essays are about the way it brings people together, and they're not about to dismiss those communities just because they're not the kind of mass audience Marcus imagines existed in the 50s and 60s. The current crop of critics may have a long way yet to go before they're free of the distortions imposed by the orthodox narrative of pop music's history, but there's no denying that Marooned is a step in the right direction.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

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