February 22nd, 2006

The Start of It All

I'm one of those people -- I'm not sure how rare -- who has taken music critics seriously since I was a teenager. There are good reasons for this. I grew up listening to my father read the opera reviews of John Rockwell and Andrew Porter out loud. When I was an exchange student in Germany, homesick for the English language, I found magazines like Spin and The Face provided me an easy yet long-lasting fix, since I could read them over and over and didn't need a lot of time to do so. After I returned to the States, I started reading Melody Maker and New Musical Express religiously as a way to fill in the gaps in my musical knowledge, just as I was roaming the aisles at Rasputin's, Tower, and Leopold's -- the future home of Amoeba was still a run-down Mexican restaurant -- to fill in the gaps in my CD collection. Most importantly of all, though, was the fact that music criticism helped me to find words, however close to the vest I held them, for the one area of my existence where I was trained to feel passion at its fullest. For some, metaphor-laden descriptions of sex serve that function. For me, music was sex. In many ways it still is.

Of all the critics I read back in those fondly recalled days of discovery -- Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Throwing Muses -- my favorite by far was Simon Reynolds. Long before I had any sense of the field of music criticism, or how frighteningly youthful he was compared to luminaries like Greil Marcus, I learned to look for his byline. Indeed, my habit of seeing who wrote the thing I'm about to read was born out of the desire to read everything he wrote. When many of his best pieces from the late-1980s heyday of alternative culture were collected together in Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, I was besides myself with delight. Indeed, I vividly recall seeking out those artists he mentioned that I was not yet familiar with as I read it, while at the same time eagerly listening to his current favorites with his words in mind, most prominently a certain band -- or, more properly, "band" -- from Stockton, California called Pavement.

Years later I had the pleasure of reviewing Reynolds' exhaustively researched and beautifully written history of techno and rave culture, Generation Ecstasy, then got to interview him for Punk Planet. Sadly, that interview, in which he discussed the research he had begun for a new book on post-punk, never appeared. Despite the obvious relevance of the material discussed, Punk Planet's imperious impresario Dan Sinker decided that he wasn't interested in running interviews with critics, since he would rather concentrate on "real artists."

My feelings about Dan never recovered from the disappointment of having that excellent interview rejected, not least because he had agreed to the assignment in advance with full knowledge of who Simon Reynolds was and what he was going to be talking about. I continued to contribute to Punk Planet for a while after that, but Dan's treatment of me -- "neglect" might be a better word -- increasingly reflected a lack of respect for what mattered most to me, whether in music or politics. Maybe he had simply realized that I would never agree with him that critics were inherently inferior to artists or, more pointedly, that the categories were distinct to begin with. I still read the magazine -- when I can find it in this post-Big Top alternative mediascape -- but with a reserve that saddens me. If I could only find a way to separate the personal torment that I associate with Punk Planet, I would find it easier to appreciate the publication on its own terms.

Anyway, this roundabout bit of autobiography is the path I needed to walk to announce that the American edition of Reynolds' new book Rip It Up and Start Again is now out and to draw your attention to a fine interview with him that went live today. Having recently followed his back-and-forth with K-Punk in the blogosphere, I'm very interested in many of the specific points he makes. But it's his comments on cultural theory that resonate most powerfully for me:
Andy Battaglia:Your writing about rave culture drew on a lot of academic critical theory. How much of that stemmed from post-punk?

Reynolds: I got really into critical theory after, but I started picking up on it because of post-punk critics. The main theory guys were Ian Penman and Barney Hoskyns, who were au fait with all the French stuff: Derrida, Barthes, Kristeva, Bataille. By the time I had assimilated it, music had changed, so I started adopting it for this neo-psychedelic music—My Bloody Valentine, A.R. Kane, all these groups that were in some ways the opposite of post-punk. I was trying to react against post-punk at that point, espousing this quite apolitical, escapist music. By the time of rave I had read Deleuze and Guattari, and it all just seemed to genuinely be there in the music, at the heart of how it operated. The idea of rhizomatic networks applied to the world of white labels and pirate radio and record shops serving as hubs. And also the dementia involved. Deleuze and Guattari came out of the idea that normal life screws you up and that madness is a sane response to our civilization.

In Rip It Up, I only used theory to explicate the bands who were using it. A lot of these concepts in the past have genuinely helped me come up with new ways of thinking. But I think, in other ways, I've often used theory as a sort of rubber stamp for something I could have just left in my own words. It's funny—for the first time in my life, people are calling my writing unpretentious.
It's no exaggeration to say that I found validation for my own use of theory in Reynolds' unapologetic but compact reference to people like Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva. It's also no exaggeration to say that I followed a trajectory similar to the one he describes here, abetted by the culture in a Department of English where the ahistorical application of abstract concepts was strongly frowned upon. By now I've come out the other side and feel comfortable applying theory across historical divides. But I have to second his self-description and acknowledge that, yes, he has managed to refine his language so that he conveys his points more economically than ever before without sacrificing the philosophical rigor that attracted me to his writing in the first place. If you have any interest in the period covered by Rip It Up and Start Again, I strongly advise you to pick it up. He'll make it worth your while.

Sun Breaking Through

I had a stressful night of attending to pre-trip matters, greatly complicated by the fact that the pump apparently clicked off after a few gallons when I bought gas last week without me realizing it, which caused me to run out while driving Old Red home last night. Sometimes the absence of gauges is sorely felt. But order is restored and I'm about to head up to Phoenix for my indirect -- through Minneapolis -- but cheap flight to Louisville for this year's iteration of the 20th Century Literature conference. And I'm feeling more optimistic, because my complaint about the breezeway barista who played Madonna's hits all day for weeks has resulted, not in a reduction of volume, but a switch to The Cure. Go me! If there's anything I can listen to 24-7, it's The Cure.

I also had a great conversation about punk and class with my partner this morning. It's pretty special when your best interlocutor happens to live with you. To be honest, I can't even complain about last night, because despite the long trek down to campus and back, I got to have hours of quality time with Skylar, capped by a leisurely look at Piero Ventura's Book of Cities, culminating in a highly focused study of the two-page spread showing a canal-and-street scene in Amsterdam. And wait till you see how darling she looked in her cowgirl outfit this morning. If nothing else, Rodeo Days in Tucson make for great parental photo ops. Well, off to Sky Harbor. . .