Friday, March 18, 2011

What the hell happened to rock criticism (pt. 2)

OK- just a quick note because I'm working on more important stuff. I shouldn't complain about most current rock criticism unless I can provide something more specific about what it it should or could be doing that it isn't. So here it is: the liner notes to True Love Cast Out All Evil detail a horrific story describing how the 13th Floor Elevators, and Roky in particular, were victimized both by local law enforcement for their advocacy of psychedelic drugs, and by would-be friends and psychedelic guides and gurus, notably Tommy Hall who, upon joining the band as a "jug player" insisted that the members dose every single time they played live. Long story short: Roky, already acting more than a little discombobulated is arrested for possession of a single joint in 1969, and faced with a potential life sentence pleads insanity and is sentenced to indefinite detention in a state hospital for the criminally insane where he's treated to a regimen of electroshock and chemical "therapy."  He is released after a couple years, but his musical output is erratic, in part due to continuing mental problems and in part due to the severe side effects of his medication.  Unable to support himself, he ends up in subsidized low-income housing under the care of his mother who forbids all medication on religious grounds.  He deteriorates further, develops painful and dangerous abscesses in his mouth and is eventually arrested for stealing his neighbor's mail.  As shown in You're Gonna Miss Me, Roky's brother Summner fights for and wins custody, is able to get Roky better help including actual therapy and more sensible and individually indicated medication.  Within a few years Roky has re-established relationships with his son, taken over as his own legal guardian, begun performing and recording again and even bought a house and a car. And made a pretty good record here.  One that's substantive and interesting enough that I'm saving talking about the actual songs on the record for later.

On True Love Cast Out All Evil producer and Okkervil River songwriter Will Sheff has chosen to dramatize Roky's back story to some degree, to make it part of the experience of the album.  He does so in his choice of songs from Rocky's archive to either re-record or overdub, in the sequencing of those songs, and in the musical choices in the recording and production of those songs, including the use of sound fragments from Roky's archive of live performances, demos, and home movies and recordings, and in the use of dissonant instrumental passages in the context of what (except for their lyrical content) otherwise pass as straight ahead folk and pop inflected rock songs.  It's an interesting strategy and it raises interesting questions.  Sheff brings real musical depth and evidences real respect for Roky as a person and a musician, but does putting Roky's history of mental illness at the center of the record trade upon his misery differently than previous attempts to market Roky as the icon of crazy rock?  Or was that history so unavoidable that it had to be dealt with before Roky's art could be presented simply as his art?  Would some of these songs have been more powerful without the sometimes literal evocation of dissonance and confusion, or do these sonic choices extend the meanings in the songs themselves as much as they do the meaning of the singer's history?

And, if that history is at the center of the story, what does that history tell us about he abuse of authority; about the harm done by indiscriminate drug-taking as a response to abusive authority; about the shameful history linkage between poverty and mental illness in America; about the dangers of over-medication and the dangerous and romantic myth that mental illness and creativity are so inexorably linked that treating the former with medication necessarily destroys the latter; and about the uses of mental illness or "madness" in the rhetorical construction of authenticity in rock performance?

To my mind, these are all interesting questions, although not apparently to any of the approximately 500,000 people writing music reviews right now.  And that's a shame because this record sits right where criticism-thoughtful text-based listener engagement with popular music and its production-ought to live.  Roky Erickson is a "popular" artist whose career has manifested itself almost entirely through the attention of a subset of critics (to use the term quite broadly) and fans connected to each other and to Roky as much or more by textual accounts of recordings and performances than by those same recordings and performances.  To some degree this has involved a romantic engagement by those fans and critics with circumstances that have caused Roky very real pain. And to some degree it has involved, depended on and marshaled disparate people's sincere emotional connections with Erickson's music and what it evokes, making a well produced and widely distributed record by the 63 year-old former singer of the band that placed a song at #55 on the Billboard Pop singles chart of 1966, possible.  A textual engagement with this record, whose liner notes, by Sheff, were nominated for a grammy, ought to betray some critical or at least reflective consciousness of that history instead of reading like it was cut and pasted from the allmusic guide.

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