What's All This Then?
What's All This Then?
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State Shell of New Jersey: Knobbed Whelk
The Field Notes County Fair edition. Our tribute to the 50 states.
Field-Tested by Jim DeRogatis
on the road in the Midwest
When it comes to the business of rock criticism, the hoariest cliché and biggest lie ever tossed at us practitioners is the charge that were ‘all just frustrated musicians.’ Hell, Ive been playing the drums for as long as Ive been writing about music, and both pursuits, along with the awful addiction of collecting albums (on vinyl, on CD, and now in the era of ‘I suppose Im finally going to have to get an iPod’), stem from the same source: a rabid passion for music. Ive never been frustrated in fulfilling any aspect of my musical lusts, and I still make music today, in much the same way that the beat reporter covering the Cubs for the Sun-Times might play softball on the weekends. But whatever minor delusions I ever had about making a career out of making music were laid to rest in the summer of 1990 when I was 25, and I went on tour with an indie/underground, art-punk band that I thought maybe, just maybe, could be the one.
Unfortunately, the tour was a wretched affair pretty much from beginning to end; Cleveland to Iowa City, Milwaukee to Ann Arbor, and Columbus to Minneapolis. We hadnt done a single thing right in terms of booking, promotion, or routing; it was night after night of playing the wrong club with lousy local bands before sparsely attended crowds, and then passing out on the cold, hard floors of whatever unwilling hosts took pity on us. Reluctant to admit wed wasted our hard-earned vacations on a stupid, money-losing, cross-country ordeal that wasnt going to accomplish a damn thing, the four of us turned on one another like rabid weasels or, I should say, my bandmates turned on me. Why I was the designated scapegoat, I still cant say. I was the drummer and maybe that was enough.
In any event, I had intended to bring On the Road on that trip to read at night on those floors and during the endless days in the van when it wasnt my turn to drive. Id found inspiration in Jack Kerouacs words every time Id read them, and taking them on tour seemed fitting. I, too, was eager to savor every unexpected pleasure at the next turn of the highway, and what was the indie-rock, DIY club tour if not my peers version of the Beat Generations wildly roaming quest for kicks? I pulled ol Jack out of my backpack at the last minute though, when one of my bandmates ruthlessly mocked those romantic sentiments, and in its place I took Stanley Booths The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, which Id also read before, but which suddenly acquired a lot more resonance as the van made its way around the Great Lakes and across the prairies.
By no means am I implying parallels between the relatively benign miseries of my indie/underground, art-punk band which promptly kicked me out in favor of a drum machine shortly after the tour ended and the incredible odyssey of the Rolling Stones, which Booth charts in some of the most poetic language ever applied to the subject of rock n roll, largely from the perspective of Brian Jones, from the early days of teenage fuck-ups finding the only sense of identity they could imagine in American blues, to the heady and disorienting rush of worldwide super-stardom, to the pathetic betrayals and sad, lonely deaths at the end of the story the literal one, with Jones floating in that swimming pool, and the symbolic one, with the demise of an eras utopian idealism under the harsh jackboot of reality at a dusty racetrack in Northern California.
No, there was nothing nearly as dramatic as Altamont during the cross-country idyll of my indie/underground, art-punk band; it really was just a couple of shitty weeks spent in a van with four smelly guys who left anticipating the rock n roll summer of their dreams and returned with no illusions. Except maybe for one; that at its very best, as with Stanley Booths epic, writing about music can be art that is every bit the equal of the best music itself. And the pursuit of that can be every bit as worthy a dream as rock stardom.
Jim DeRogatis is the pop music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times; the co-host of Public Radios "Sound Opinions," the worlds only rock n roll talk show; and the author of several books about music, including Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, Americas Greatest Rock Critic, and Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahomas Fabulous Flaming Lips, both published by Broadway Books. He can be found at his website.
Read the next Field Test by Jonathan Eig