THE GRAMMAR OF ROCK:
ART AND ARTLESSNESS
IN THE 20th CENTURY
By Alexander Theroux. Fantagraphics Books.2013. Hardcover. 346 pages.
Review by Francis DiMenno
Two things I’ve got to say right off. First is that Mr. Theroux was a teacher of mine way back in the 1970s and I even hung out with him on Cape Cod for an afternoon or two. Second is that he is a witty guy, a very witty guy, but I am very jealous of him, because he has written an exegesis of rock which puts my own humble effort in this vein, “Masterpieces of Rock”—you can google it if you like—far beyond the pale. This book is like one continuous stream of bafflingly hilarious erudition; dense, dithyrambic and infuriatingly opinionated. Early on he states: ”We cannot help but see, then, that pop music is, among other things, an extensive gallery of postures and… a compendium of diverse attitudes and odd approaches… I think it worthwhile to look at the successes and failures of this music, bringing an intelligence… to conclude what we will.”
And does he ever, This screed is one of those marvelous feats of writerly bravura which lifelong aficionados of the outré tend to treasure up. In its language it sometimes reminds me of Richard Meltzer’s bafflegab-laden put-on pronunciato “The Aesthetics of Rock” (1967). Its rhetoric is similar to Gershon Legman’s careering anti-hippie monograph “The Fake Revolt” (1967). Compare and contrast.
First, Legman: ”The main feeling one gets, picking one’s way through the sodden bodies and surly faces of the “flower children” in these psychedelic pads nowadays, is that of a terrible and empty sadness and meaninglessness. Mostly, the kids just sit around among the unwashed dishes, scratching their unwashed armpits, screwing…and work themselves up on drugs to writing newer and worse manifestoes and poems, all in a bad imitation of the style of Walt Whitman’s bad imitation of the King James Bible….”
Next, Theroux: “The continuing irony of lyrical verbosity in popular music is that…it is a kind of pedantry of the vigorous and athletic sort that usually expresses itself in a virulent form of anti-intellectualism. It is big on nature mysticism. Going out and getting grubby. Romantic solipsism. Wordsworthian trust in nature. Suspicion of ritual. The holiness of solitude. Hatred of authority. The inarticulate hero. Guitar as ikon. Spontaneity. Drugs-as-viaticum….”
In his polymathic verve, Theroux equals and sometimes excels the inspired snark of J. P. Donleavy’s “The Unexpurgated Code” (1975), and, at his best, he even rivals Walt Whitman’s rant-laden description of a antebellum Democratic National Convention: “The members who composed it were, seven-eighths of them, the meanest kind of bawling and blowing office-holders, office-seekers, pimps…carriers of conceal’d weapons, deaf men, pimpled men, scarr’d inside with vile disease, gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people’s money and harlots’ money twisted together; crawling, serpentine men, the lousy combings and born freedom-sellers of the earth.”
Why read the collected writings of, say, Hunter S. Thompson, when Theroux is much more often profoundly accurate, as well as insightful about a subject dear to any musician’s heart—and, also, far more willing to fling spiteful invective around like a dripping-wet workdog coming into your spotless vestibule from a gale-force hurricane? Theroux’s myriad of opinions regarding high culture might enlighten you; his roundhouse condemnations of low culture can and should make you laugh out loud. He takes an axe to the idiocies of—just a random survey sample here—Yes, REM, Springsteen, Cher, Elvis, Karen Carpenter, Barbra Streisand, Burt Bacharach—and he’s just getting warmed up. He also takes the time to get in subtle and not-so-subtle digs at his siblings; at Cape Cod Community College; at G.W. Bush; at NPR, and at Rush Limbaugh—you might say that he’s an equal opportunity hater, as the cliché has it, only his feelings never seem to rise to a crescendo of deep loathing—only to one of profound annoyance and scorn. He hilariously execrates hillbilly logic in general and country music in particular: “It was so hokey the way country singers tried to seem so ass-kickin tough, surly, and macho, monosyllabic and deep, meaningful and nonsensical, when any fool could tell it was all show-business.”
Nor does he stop there. He mocks the mawkish; knocks the props out from under hippie sentimentality; slaps hip-hop into a cocked hat. He comes off like the world’s wittiest curmudgeonly uncle complaining about That Damned Noise in language so efflorescent he might as well be writing one of his novels—a great American novel, as a matter of fact, in which not one word is fiction. (His 1973 novel “Three Wogs” caused a sensation—mostly for its hilarious cruelty—and his 1979 novel “D’Arconville’s Cat” was singled out in Anthony Burgess’s 1984 book “99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939.”)
This uncommonly opinionated production is likely to provoke many people into violently hurling the tome across the room or scribbling “bullshit” and “wrong” into the margins of nearly every other page.
Alas, such sticklers may have a point. The book is riddled with numerous small errors. Muddled song titles, for instance: The Big Bopper sang “Chantilly Lace,” not “You Know What I Like.” Muddled attributions: Donovan, not Dylan, wrote “Catch the Wind.” Brian Wilson never wrote a song called “Van Dyke Parks.” The song Theroux is thinking of is “Heroes and Villians,” with lyrics by Van Dyke Parks, and the line “columnated ruins domino”—which he professes not to understand—is surely no more obscure or difficult to understand than the poetry of, say, Hart Crane. (Some of these lapses may be due to shoddy editing. Souza wrote five novels. [Page 264.] Souza wrote three novels. [Page 272.] Which is it?)
But so many of his defenestrations are so devastatingly spot on that one is tempted to pluck the best of them from their overwhelming context and compile a list of favorites, and, surely, someday some canny operator will do just that. I will say that despite his breadth of knowledge regarding the American songbook, Theroux does not seem to know much about Boston-area rock—he does, however, have a kind word for the Remains, singles out the Lemonheads, and name-drops the Dropkick Murphys and the Modern Lovers.
Theroux is intensely vain. Only an egotist could have written such a book. But I say more power to him. It is brilliant. It is flawed and full of curious blind spots, and it is also very far indeed from a truly comprehensive survey of all the lyrical gaffes to be found in pop, rock, blues, rap, country, and show tunes. We get the impression sometimes that Theroux has been compelled to empty out, not only his notebooks, but his brain pan. Still, the book is compellingly entertaining.
Ultimately, what Theroux most vigorously protests is, not simply pop music lyrics, but the ongoing debasement of rational discourse: “Cliches, threadbare phrases, inane word usage, trite expressions, verbal tics, stock terms, cheap slang, and grammatical errors that even third graders would not make are indications of national brainlessness.” It is basically the same message that Confucius sent out some 25 centuries ago: Rectify the language.