It is the Moby Dick of rock crit--nothing else I've read comes close.
- James Parker, The Idler
Demanding, a-trivial and universe-defining.
- Byron Colley, Forced Exposure
Sound and fury signifying nothing. An obviously unedited manuscript scripted by an idiot.
300 pages of slurs.
- Deborah Frost, L.A. Weekly
Rock and the Pop Narcotic: Testament for the Electric Church is a book of rock criticism written by Joe Carducci. It was first published in November of 1990, with a 2nd edition emerging in 1994, published by 2.13.61 (founded by Henry Rollins). A 3rd edition turned up in 2005, published by Redoubt Press, which is operated by Carducci himself. The jacket of the 3rd edition describes the tome: "It was written in the years 1986 through 1990 following the author's nine years in the music business (the record distributor Systematic; the labels SST, Thermidor, Optional; the radio stations KBOO, WVVX, WKTU)." Carducci's goal in Rock and the Pop Narcotic is developing a theory of rock in purely aesthetic terms, contra to what he alleges is the traditional critical stance, where rock music is subsumed by political calculation and other factors irrelevent to the reception of rock as music. Along the way he takes many to task for their corruption of the populist purity of rock music (and none receive more vehement attacks than rock critics themselves).
The above quotes are just a few of the critical responses printed in the first few pages of Rock and the Pop Narcotic's third edition. What drew some of the harshest denunciations (such as Frost's) was Carducci's unapologetic use of homophobic terminology, which Carducci explained somewhat in a later interview:
The frame of mind I went into writing the book was I wanted it to read like it came from the scenes I was part of. Portland was a tiny punk rock scene; Berkeley was a bigger, different type of scene; and then Los Angeles and specifically Hermosa Beach at SST was also a completely different scene. I wrote it more from the Los Angeles scene perspective because Los Angeles was notably less political and wilder and freer in scatology or whatever you want to say is the impolite, or impolitic, approach of surfer and hardcore kids and LA generally...The weird self-policing on those kind of issues was part of what the problem was, so I just figured, well I'll just take advantage of leaving the business and not worry about it, use it when it's apropos. It's also written in an almost absurdist style, a collision of academic and street styles. I thought that it was funny.
I would venture that Carducci's defiant lack of political correctness is also a provocation against what he views as the slavish and unexamined leftist politics of the Baby Boomer rock criterati (who Carducci argues "typically lack the intellectual integrity to discern that their 'ideals' are not a product of selfless concern but of vanity"). It's sort of self-sabotaging in a way, ensuring simultaneously that he could never be mistaken for one of his enemies and that they'll refuse outright to take him seriously (as Frost does, grossly exaggerating the amount of time he spends tossing slurs around). Carducci isn't lacking a sense of humor regarding his own infamy; the 3rd ed. of Rock and the Pop Narcotic features a list of magazines who reviewed the book with small icons beside them indicating points of evaluation and contention included in that publication's review. The icons represent:
(One of Carducci's arch-nemeses is Springsteen biographer/hagiographer (and the man apparently responsible for coining the term punk rock) Dave Marsh, who he characterizes as the Rasputin to The Boss' Nicholas. Marsh exemplifies much of what Carducci detests about rock criticism: a tireless imposition of political ideology on the music, and the pop compromise/sell-out of being financially connected to his subject.)
In terms of organization, Rock and the Pop Narcotic is split into two sections: "The Riff" and "The Solo." The first section is taken up by Carducci's broad critical reflections and theorization regarding rock, and the second consists of "The Psychozoic Hymnal", a sweeping history of rock music from the postwar era to the almost-present, and the book's appendices.
Although Carducci's interest in politics is primarily concerned with taking it out of the equation regarding rock music, in Rock and the Pop Narcotic he proves himself to be an astute cultural critic. His contemplation of television and its effect on American culture is fascinating and often convincing, and from a different direction reminiscent of David Foster Wallace's incredible essay "E. Unibas Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" (if you hate the postmodern lit crit superhero Wallace, give this essay a chance—it's insanely readable, humble, and brilliant). In his steamrolling, take-no-prisoners approach to cultural commentary, Carducci actually often recalls Jim Goad, although his tone is a bit less scatological. In the final analysis, Rock and Pop Narcotic is in some ways as much a commentary on a post-Vietnam/Watergate/television American postmodernity ruled by iron-fisted Baby Boomer overlords as it is a book about rock music. In some respects, Carducci's at his best as a broad cultural critic.
Carducci would probably hate to hear that, though, since his guiding concern is rock as an aesthetic phenomenon. And he does an amazing job despite his own admission that any writing about rock music will inevitably fall short of lived experience. He describes what rock is in a passage that is worth quoting at length:
Rock is not alchemy (adding black to white and getting gold), it is transubstantiation. It's not the notes, it's the jam between them. It is aggressive to the point of derailing from its rhythm and is unsafe at any speed. It is not identifiable by chart position, nor even by sound (say, fuzzed out guitars), volume or speed. Its special musical value is that it is a folk form which exhibits a small band instrumental language as in jazz, rather than mere accompaniment to a vocalist as in pop. Rock is the place where rhythm and melody battle it out most intensively and in doing so they create something more....In rock, melody is present and its whiff of mood still distinctive, however, here it is pushed along by an explicitly physical, even carnal rhythm arrangement. The whole of the music then can be said to be a more complete metaphor for the actual human condition: we are higher aspirations pushed along by carnal drives.
Carducci's notion of rock music is actually well-conveyed by the painting (by the author himself) that adorns the 3rd ed. cover. The painting is from a photograph of Black Flag caught in the act: Greg Ginn in characteristically rigid, wide-legged stance, with a thinly-veiled abstraction of the Bars emblazoned on the kick drum (the lack of a vocalist suggests their transience in Black Flag pre-Rollins, and perhaps a subtle broadside from Carducci against pop identification with singers instead of the Teutonic force of the band). Each figure is more or less anonymous though, with the details sanded off in favor of an ambiguous off-white coloring; what they share is a single red circle in each of their skulls. This is a representation of the telepathic interplay of the rock band in action, where a new identity emerges that is from the members but not of them, and greater than the sum of its parts—the band members (who Carducci dubs "Men With No Names") are de-individuated in this collective ritual. The notion is a bit reminiscent of the classic Hüsker Dü logo, where three horizontal lines enclosed within a circle represent the separate and contentious band members, but a single vertical line connects them. Carducci writes: "With the band's individual musicians each supplying their element while listening to the others, the played sound can become more than the sum of its parts. The surplus is the jam, and if it's going on then a rock band is effecting a transubstantiation as sublime as any priest's." (Carducci, who I suspect might be a lapsed Catholic, loves this term.)
Carducci's world is a Manichean one: Rock stands in eternal opposition to the slick calculation of Pop, which has lulled the public into a narcotic sleep where they are left unable to recognize the inevitability and force of Rock true believers like a Black Flag, a Saint Vitus, or a Nomeansno. However, Carducci doesn't make the classic indie move of privileging the underground against the shallow consumerism of the mainstream, noting that "In the twenty years since the Ramones picked up their instruments, the underground has humored as much utter garbage as the mainstream has." Later, while describing critic Chuck Eddy's attempt at hipster brinksmanship (wherein he accuses Black Flag of having "put out a good punk rock album and then ripped off Flipper for four years straight"; this despite the fact that Damaged follow-up Family Man didn't even come out until three years after the first LP) Carducci writes: "May Undergroundism follow Marxism onto the scrap heap of history." One of the book's most interesting and unusual facets comes from Carducci's determination to examine rock as rock, which leads him to adopt a kind of pan-rock position: he champions prog rockers like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Rush at the same time as bands like Black Flag and Hüsker Dü (not to mention groups like Bill Haley and His Comets, which are all seen as part of the same continuum). Fenced into this bold yet somewhat paradoxical stance, Carducci ends up making some puzzling denunciations of bands such as the Clash and the Buzzcocks.
While he skewers such critical darlings as Bruce Springsteen and U2, Carducci also celebrates such bearded radio rockers as ZZ Top. Pop is not indicated by a mere index of popularity; neither is it a facility with melody: though he celebrates bands like Black Sabbath and Saint Vitus, Carducci dismisses the more extreme manifestations of heavy metal that have lost touch with the western melodic tradition still present in rock and roll, saying "Comics and monster movies are no paradigm for a music". For Carducci, Pop is above all else calculation. The danger, spontaneity, and primal force of the band is forsaken in pop: when the tour is over, the hard-bitten and mighty backing band is shelved while the pop singer is ushered back into the studio, where the guiding hand of managers and svengalis will shepherd him/her through the recording of some new songs (written by a crackerjack team of pop songsmiths) featuring a string section.
Carducci ends the book noting that "Rock music as a whole is a harmony of chaos." With his total theory of rock, Carducci reveals a Manichean struggle beneath the flux and instability of a globalized, postmodern world order: melody and rhythm fight it out in our souls and on our stages, and substance and calculation grapple for the attention of our consciousness. Carducci isn't afraid to take sides and lay his allegiances out on the table. Rock and the Pop Narcotic is one of the best books ever written about rock music, but if you take sound as seriously as Carducci does, it's a lot more than that (even though that's enough). It's not perfect: the book can be overly polemical, self-contradictory, and more than a little insensitive. But it's also engaging, thoughtful, inspiring and overflowing with passion for the source material. Rock on, Joe.
Carducci, Joe. Rock and the Pop Narcotic. Redoubt Press, 2005.
1999 interview with Carducci from Furious.com - http://www.furious.com/perfect/carducci.html