Critical Condition 

Neal Pollack taps rock crit's spine

One of the first book reviews I ever published (at an alt-weekly newspaper in Portland, Ore., between stringer jobs reviewing concerts), was of Greil Marcus’ Dead Elvis. Dead Elvis was, like all of Marcus’ work, impenetrably egg-headed and compulsively yogic in its vain stretch for meaning. Which Marcus might describe as an acknowledgement of—perhaps even an argument for—some sort of Dadaist nonmeaning. Because that’s the sort of meaninglessly portentous crap Marcus writes.

To a young “rock critic,” Marcus was the tenured yin to Lester Bangs’ uneducated yang. Bangs was an unchained and possibly unhinged rock scribbler of the Kerouackian order.

Marcus edited Bang’s posthumous collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Anyone who’s read Dead Elvis and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung has read way too much music journalism.

Neal Pollack has read way too much music journalism. A onetime alt-weekly writer in Chicago now living in Austin, Texas, Pollack is more recently known for a self-aggrandizing series of genre-mocking satirical novels-of-sorts (The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, etc.). He carries on the same sort of over-the-top first-person bravura that Mark Leyner modernized for American fiction, and he mocks more often and more specifically journalism, which makes him an acquired, else disposable, comedic taste. But within this narrow crevasse of pop-culture ephemera, Pollack chips away at music journalism’s fondest justifications and most calcified pomposities with relish and skill.

Pollack has changed some names—the Bangs character, “the only true rock critic this country will ever produce,” is renamed Neal Pollack; Marcus gets tagged as the suitably effete “Paul St. Pierre.” Pollack places himself, Zelig-like, at the center of each and it sometimes seems every hoary myth that rock has to offer: Young Pollack impresses Sun Studios’ Sam Phillips; he brown-noses Bob Dylan; he screams at Lou Reed and mentors Iggy Pop; he bangs Patti Smith and discovers Kurt Cobain, all the while chasing the ghost of an old black bluesman named Clamone…Clambone.

Finally Pollack gets hits by a bus, and his death is what causes St. Pierre—who opens this book Hunter Thompson-style on the beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico—to spring into action.

“The phone rang in the post-noon dusk, and I answered it, because I’d told them not to call me unless someone famous died.”

It’s Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, natch, wanting “a short piece, for the back of the book” on Pollack’s death.

“As I constructed my story through press accounts, on-site witness interviews, and pure historical conjecture,” St. Pierre writes in the “prologue,” “I realized that Neal Pollack’s death, in retrospect, had been inevitable since his birth. What is death, after all, in the absence of life? In Pollack’s case, as in so many others, not much.”

Thus hobbled with circularity, St. Pierre is off like a hellhound on Pollack’s trail, genuflecting before nightmares of his own intellectual impotence and only occasionally indulging rants as he recovers memories of the more-“authentic” Pollack seducing each of his—St. Pierre’s— successive Chardonnay-sipping wives.

Pollack is the “real” heart of rock and roll and St. Pierre is a pussy hanger-on, and he knows it, and he hates Pollack for it, even as he worships him. That hinge between the real and the fake, the OGs and the posers—“authenticity” vs. its opposite, if you like—can serve in a pinch as a central metaphor of most of rock music.

Or at least of most rock criticism.

It’s no accident that as once-revolutionary “rock” music has become a sub-set of a much larger popular music, rock criticism and pop criticism both have devolved to six degrees of catch-up description and fatuous interviews with pop stars and anti-stars both famous and obscure. Without the revolution, it turns out, there wasn’t much to write about. Rock writing was almost never about the music—a task famously dismissed as “dancing about architecture.” And authenticity, it turns out, was never quite what it was sold to be. Rock criticism was and is sociology, often amateur, and large-scale pop psychology, always speculative, wrapped in ego, stinking of desperation.

Which is a poor forecast for the budding Bangses and St. Pierres toiling away in the nation’s alt-weeklies in these musically burgeoning days of declining rock hegemony. But it’s a rich motherlode for a satirical novel.

Pollack—the presumably real Pollack, in Austin—has either been through the rock-crit grinder himself or has closely observed many who have. He’s definitely absorbed the self-promotion lessons of Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. On his axis of American rock nostalgia, he’s the implicit equal of pop-obsessed Brit Nick Hornsby (High Fidelity). He’s read Terry Southern’s Candy, I’ll bet ya, more than once. And Never Mind the Pollacks (if you don’t get the title, you probably won’t get much out of the book) digests all those influences rock critics are always yammering about into a fever-dream tour of rock’s nerdier mythos.

“Pollack mattered to me,” writes Pollack, as St. Pierre, of Bangs, on the opening page, “like he did to most other cool people in their late forties, early to mid-fifties.” Someone’s probably being generous about the scope of his audience. But specificity can never be too pointed in satire. And if the meager and getting-meagerer-all-the-time stature of rock criticism requires but one good pinprick, this one will do nicely.

btyer@missoulanews.com

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