Sunday, September 29, 2013

Slightly late review of Crawdaddy magazine, 1966-1968

I was recently pointed at this ad-hoc archive of Crawdaddy magazine from 1966 to 1968.

Crawdaddy was the first magazine of critical rock'n'roll writing in the US. Founded in 1966 by a zine maker, it went on to become professionally published and highly-regarded. Critics Jon Landau, Richard Meltzer and Sandy Pearlman began writing there; a later issue included the famous interview of Jimmy Page by William Burroughs.

Trawling my way through the downloaded wordage this morning, I eventually discovered that I can't really follow it. American rock criticism has always been largely incomprehensible to me. As an avid NME, Sounds and Melody Maker reader in the seventies, I would read thousands of words of British rock criticism a week, and never had a problem understanding what the writers were getting at, even if I didn't know the music in question. I'm sure some allusions and puns went over my head, of course, but I would read an article and come away enlightened on the subject and often entertained and amused by the writer. I could count on Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and Mick Farren to provide readable prose on a consistent basis. Even when I branched out into the rare British monthlies, such as Dave Laing's short-lived Let It Rock, I discerned no appreciable difference from the weeklies writers in readability terms.

But American critics? Once, early on, I made the mistake of buying a Greil Marcus book, because it sounded totally cool. Mystery Train, Images of America in Rock'n'Roll. With a bit on Robert Johnson. Doesn't that sound cool? It has a Mystery Train in it, and it's about images of America. Always loved music, always loved folklore, and that Mystery Train...always loved ghost trains!

It turned out to mostly be about Elvis, the Band and Randy Newman - my god, what?! - and did not have any cool images of America or actual mysterious trains in it whatsoever, just page upon page of  earnest prose whose entirely unmysterious train started nowhere and went nowhere while visiting Nowheresville Not-Station on the way. It's a long stream of consciousness ramble. I can't describe it without rambling myself, but there's a read-inside-this-book on it here.

A couple of years ago, I bought Marcus' The Old Weird America, because it sounded cool. It's about Old America, and where it's weird! Everyone wants to meet the old weird America, right? Chautaquas in Chappaqua, Snake Oil in the Dust Bowl and probably even mysterious trains! The back cover blurb says, "This is Greil Marcus's acclaimed book on the secret music made by Bob Dylan and the Band in 1967, which introduced a phrase that has become part of the culture: "the old, weird America." It is this country that the book maps - the "playground of of God, Satan, tricksters, Puritans, confidence men, Illuminati, braggarts, preachers, anonymous poets of all stripes"." Doesn't that sound cool? Fooled again. Apart from the fact that it's about the Band, again, which I kind of glossed over when I read the description, it's yet another long hike through the sulci and gyri of Marcus' brain which is suspiciously short on ghost trains. I didn't manage to finish it.

However, given the chance to trawl through the well-known-to-me late sixties music and political scene with a bunch of the best budding rock critics the world has ever known (according to their Wikipedia articles) I went ahead and browsed through Crawdaddy to see how Richard Meltzer, Samuel R Delany (yes, that one) and Paul Williams (not that one) stacked up - would they be Greil Marcuses or would they be Charles Shaar Murrays?

Well, Paul Williams got off to a good start with me. He was a science fiction fan, and wrote the definitive book (IMO) on Philip K Dick, Only Apparently Real, which I enjoyed no end. As an SF fan, he was familiar with APAs and publishing Zines, and transferred that knowledge to rock music, producing Crawdaddy as a hand-typed, mimeographed zine. He mailed copies to the labels and manufacturers, which eventually got him enough advertising revenue to begin professional publishing. The first issue of Crawdaddy is the plainest thing imaginable, but the fire and passion for music comes through. Williams appears to write the majority of the first few issues.

Unfortunately, as other writers join in, most of what else comes through is wordcount. Some of these things are about as long as a mystery train. The Samuel R Delany pieces are as convoluted and incomprehensible as his books and I had to close my eyes while I read the piece in October 1968 on Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company that praises the men's bodies and completely blasts Joplin's. I'd read that people called her ugly, but I hadn't realized they'd put quite so much of it into print. The article reads like a YouTube comment written by a professor of literary post modernism.

Paul Williams, an engaging and practical writer, was definitely not the norm at Crawdaddy. The standard is the up-your-own-bum writing of the Greil Marcus variety. There's the article called Richard Meltzer Interviewed, for instance, in March/April 1968. It's mostly about a tongue (which sucks pumice in summer and is imperceptibly tiny).
The basic unknown tongue is, if you care, you know you can sort of fit it out through all four levels of Plato's divided line, you know, all those levels. It's increment of change, increment of mere awe, parenthetical awe, objectified awe or any of that, and lastly, increment of taxonomic urgency you know, like you just gotta label it tongue. You know; there's a tongue or there was a tongue right there. Oh it's a musical transition jargon thing.  [...]
Oh, aardvark tits! I guess I'm like an arab in a bernoose standing almost near a telephone pole watching a swarm of red efts go by...

Neil Louison in the February 1968 issue:
And even the Stones predictated greatness doesn't get in the way of our jocular communion. For all the time we have been in awe of our condition and no one could deny that we have also been singing. For the consciousness of the request does not have to be shackled by a life context and therefore the character of the action toward the black and the mystical, toward the forest of satyrlike formal whoredom, toward the land of rigor-mortal idylls. And this is precisely where the Stones lead us. it is no wonder that much of the album adds up to unmitigated rhythmical passage.  
No life/cognition duplex is around to convolute the direction of our jog in the country. The spiritual whisking of Their Satanic Majesties Request is roughly comparable to the post detergent rejuvenation which Jack Cassidy brings to us with his mandolin-picked bass. The difference lies in that Airplane trip with satyr-Jack and the boys and girls is implemented and derived merely from technique and therefore leads us only to formal appreciation and so only to limbo. In contrast, the Stones are quite consciously being historically cosmic--directed toward a primally erotic cornucopia. 
Thirty years on from reading the NME and for that matter, tony Brit critic Tony Palmer's book Born Under a Bad Sign, vocabulary no doubt much larger, experience of new weird America infinitely richer, since I've lived here twenty years, and I still can't understand this stuff. But it must be just me as everybody agrees it's great.

Edited for clarity 09:25 am; added italics to title 10.06 pm

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