To the extent that a book of rock criticism can be considered legendary, “Stranded” certainly falls into the category. The premise of the book, released almost 30 years ago, was simple: twenty of the leading rock critics of the day would select the one record that they would want to have with them, if they were to find themselves stranded on a desert island. Nearly all of the major first-generation critics were represented: Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, Paul Nelson, Dave Marsh, Ellen Willis, Kit Rachlis, Simon Frith, John Rockwell, and others. The book was edited by Greil Marcus, who had made a name for himself a few years earlier with “Mystery Train,” which made the argument for rock and roll music as a major American art form while trying to find where the music fit within the wide spectrum of American cultural history. “Mystery Train” was a serious book, meant to be taken seriously.
“Stranded” was more of a lark; some of the authors took the premise very seriously (and some, like John Rockwell, a bit too seriously, devoting the book’s longest essay to Linda Ronstadt’s “Living in the U.S.A.,” of all things), while others like Dave Marsh turned it into a joke, calling his entry “Onan’s Greatest Hits.” In the book Lester Bangs was atypically inscrutable discussing Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” while Simon Frith was breathtakingly brilliant on the Stones’ “Beggar’s Banquet.” The rest of the essays fell somewhere in between.
At the end of “Stranded,” Marcus contributed a section he called “Treasure Island,” which essentially tried to fill in the blanks left by the previous 20 writers. As he said, someone had to take responsibility for the tradition, and present a case to the rock neophyte as to what represented the very best of the genre. Marcus’ tastes are wide and varied, and he has a healthy appreciation for trash, so his list definitely lived up to its title. I still read it with pleasure today, and every now and then learn something new about a work that I’ve listened to for decades.
All of which brings us to the 2007 “sequel” to “Stranded,” “Marooned.” To be honest, I had no idea the book existed until my family’s trip to San Francisco last weekend. But there it was, sitting on a counter at the Virgin Megastore on Market Street, 20% off, and I knew right then and there that before the weekend was over I’d be walking out of that store with the book.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read every essay in the book yet, but I believe I’ve read enough to capture its tone. The key to the new volume is right there at the beginning, in the Foreword contributed by Greil Marcus (the book, by the way, was edited by Phil Freeman, a critic with whom I’m not familiar):
Whatever pop music might be between the covers of this book, it isn’t lingua franca. In the fifties, young people woke up to find that, somehow, they’d been born knowing the pop language that was taking shape all around them. How was it that, for a white, teenage girl on a farm in Iowa no less than for an eight-year old African-American boy in Tulsa, Little Richard needed no translator? That was the pop world; it isn’t any longer. Over the last twenty years some of the most interesting and many of the most radical pop artists have worked as if to erect barriers between themselves and any version of a so-conceived mass audience, if only to ensure that whoever made it to the other side really wanted to be there. Again and again, writers here find themselves speaking not of how a record or a musician or a singer changed their lives, or the world, or the face-of-pop – but rather “invented a language,” or tried to.
What I read in what Marcus is saying there is a theme that he has explored since at least 1980, and before that – the fragmentation of the rock audience. Whether it’s because I’m an idealist or a fuddy-duddy is for others to decide, but I find that to be almost unbearably sad – that, as Lester Bangs wrote in 1977, “never again will we agree on anything like we agreed on Elvis.”
The difference makes “Marooned” a very different kind of book than “Stranded.” In 1978, I believe the writers wrote as if the universal rock audience could still exist; they wrote about the works they loved accompanied by a thought in the back of their minds that all someone had to do was read their essay in order to become entranced by the subject at hand. I think the writers in “Marooned” write as if the opposite is true – the universal rock audience will never again exist, so they might as well celebrate the fragmentation and write about the stuff that lights the fuse that blows up the entire ship. So you have artists as diverse as Elton John, Iron Maiden, Dionne Warwick, Dio, Scorpions, Alice Coltrane, Miles Davis, The Meters, Sonny Rollins, and Stereolab. An entertaining (if somewhat mystifying) mix, but all just little pieces of a vast universe.
Which is fine, and I’m just going to have to get used to it. My only quibble so far is with Freeman’s “Return to Treasure Island,” which in my less than humble opinion should be characterized as falling somewhere between a disappointment and a travesty. Sure, it’s just one person’s opinion, but if you’re going to take the responsibility for a tradition, then you need to do better than having as many songs by William Shatner as Nirvana, having three Slayer albums and none by Sleater-Kinney, and totally ignoring the recent efforts of Bob Dylan and (dare I say it) Bruce Springsteen. It may be defensible, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly honest.
But then again – what do I know? I’m just an old guy.