By Fred Goodman
431 pages, $25
In 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan strapped on an electric guitar and drowned out a sea of booing militant pro-acoustic folkies. An act of prowess I am still thankful for, even if I wasn't yet born, even if I could never stand Bob Dylan. This no doubt tinny onslaught heralded a massive transformation of "pop" music -- or so argues former Rolling Stone News Editor Fred Goodman in his recent book, The Mansion on the Hill, from a corporate, distinctly white-bread '50s phenomenon (Pat Boone, not yet in a metal mood) to an "individualized" art form capable of expressing a younger generation's often radicalized values. Simultaneously, it spawned the ilk of Citizen Geffen and what would become, 30 years later, a $20 billion recording industry that co-opted and sold the anti-capitalist underground voice of that self-same generation. The central question proposed by Dylan's electric perambulations (and posed to the point of nausea ever since) is: How does a rock artist critique the system (and thus maintain "street credibility") when the system contractually agrees to gold-plate his toilet paper?
Or even prior to this question of a rocker's "authenticity," one might ask: Does rock 'n' roll ever attain the status of art? How do we know? What exactly is the difference between art and entertainment? Or entertainment and business? Are these categories mutually exclusive? And by whose standards?
Goodman, while telling the tale of the boomer sellout -- a well-told tale that will, if you haven't already barricaded yourself in all-encompassing cynicism, depress the fuck out of you -- returns to this "art or entertainment" question repeatedly; indeed it plagues Mansion. Surprisingly, Goodman never manages much of an answer -- no insightful negotiation of ego, vision, fame, and money that still makes room for "art." Rock is entertainment, which is a code word for business. And art is reserved for sylphs, or at least for the tubercular. And when the twain meet, art becomes compromised. Of course the icons Goodman uses to illustrate this dreary paradigm are for the most part the Pat Boones of the '70s: Crosby, Stills & Nash; Joni Mitchell; The Eagles; Jackson Browne; Peter Frampton -- names whose very utterance makes me want to shower. With the exception of Neil Young (who, because he's a freak, has managed to retain some "street cred") and the MC5 (whom Goodman deems failures because they talked revolution while taking a deal with Elektra, and who, one could argue, rocked even harder because the Man was footing the bill), this book focuses on megastars who had few radical political convictions to begin with -- lily-white wimps who simultaneously craved an arena full of twinkling lighters held aloft and a Mediterranean villa in Laurel Canyon. Goodman, of course, justifies the importance of these "artists" by their rankings on the Billboard charts -- i.e., by the number of units sold. Thus their level of importance also determines their level of compromise, or business savvy, depending on your point of view. Which is to say it's rigged; it's like laying odds on the Grammy nominees. And the award goes to .... Except there're even fewer African-American artists presented here than at the Grammys -- not even crossover successes like Hendrix or Sly Stone. And the book presents a very "lite" exploration of how class functions in the United States. If the Cambridge (white, middle-class) folkies equated electric guitar with corporate greed, what about Muddy Waters or James Brown, who went electric before Dylan, and who had at least as much of (if not more of) an influence on boomer musicians than Mr. "Lay Lady Lay"? The fact that James Brown was the hardest-working man in show biz and produced what I would happily term "art" -- an art that never tried to separate itself from entertainment, or audience participation -- is entirely neglected.
Instead we are inundated with the depressing intricacies of a burgeoning arena-rock management, or AOR radio, or booking-agent thugs. We learn about opportunistic Rolling Stone critic and Springsteen confidant Jon Landau, or embarrassing Af-Am-appropriating WBCN DJ and J. Geils frontman Peter Wolf (aka "The Woofa Woofa"). We are told of Dylan's hipper-than-thou, ball-breaking manager, Albert Grossman, or the young, fast, and loose David Geffen. We learn about those who are proud to be hucksters, crooks, loudmouths, dictators, con men: America's archetypal bootstrap heroes pillaging in a recently opened rock 'n' roll candy shop. And scumbags, I fully admit, are more interesting than saints -- but, damn it, what about the sanctity of art?
The problem may lie in that Mansion presents the Great Rock 'n' Roll Sellout before an unforgiving ethical backdrop defined by the mega-anal folkniks of Cambridge. (Harvard was, after all, deemed by the Puritans to become the center of the New Jerusalem.) Along with the overlooked R&B/gospel traditions, Goodman would have done well to bring in vaudeville, Catskills stand-up, poetry, jazz, theater, and even, as the title suggests, hillbilly music. A comparison to other (many of them pre-boomer) forms of "entertainment" might have fleshed out a better understanding of what constitutes "art" in rock. Either that or drop the question entirely and admit that what the Frankfurt School said 60 years ago was pretty much on the money: Uncompromised "authenticity" -- what the folkies wanted as much as Fugazi -- can only exist in a system that creates (and thrives off of) high-quality reproductions. (Read "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Walter Benjamin's Illuminations.) Late consumer capitalism creates the need for the real McCoy only because scenes, movements, campaigns, and crusades clone themselves before our very eyes: vinyl, CDs, cassettes, videos, fashions, commercials -- indeed late consumer capitalism generates the very concept of authenticity. In other words, rock's "individualist" critique is a born capitalist, with a six-string strapped across his back.
The fact that a generation of inured boomers could find their post-Vietnam voice in Jackson Browne either means that they wouldn't know art if it was floating in their own toilets, or, and maybe more likely, that most boomers decided they didn't really want their rock to be any more important than a Hollywood movie. Something to hum to, to hump to. After all's said and done, I can sympathize. I grow weary of Goodman's all-or-nothing debate. And, yes, corporate rock still sucks.