King of the Contrarians: Chuck Eddy’s “Rock and Roll Always Forgets”

By Josh LanghoffSeptember 29, 2011

Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism by Chuck Eddy

ROCK CRITIC CHUCK EDDY is one of the world's great music fans. For the past 25 years, his writing for The Village VoiceCreemRolling StoneSpin, and other outlets has kept Eddy at the center of pop music conversations. He's been an obstinate champion of overlooked genres like teen pop, country, AOR, rock en Español, and metal, and many record collections would be poorer without him. Eddy's quintessential record review, though, had nothing to do with any of those genres. Rather, it's a meditation on Michael Jackson in the form of a review of Jackson's 1991 Dangerousalbum for the Village Voice titled "Michael Jackson Loves the Sound of Breaking Glass." A hectoring invocation — "Hey, so how come nobody's compared the fucker to There's a Riot Goin' On?" — sets us off and running for 2,500 words that reek of Eddy, the cranky old man, tracing Jackson's "fear and loathing" not just back to Sly Stone, but to Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway." He evokes rock as much as pop and R & B, including his faves Slade and Kix and the snide trinity of Dylan/Rotten/Axl. And then there are the mannered devices: alliterative rhymes ("bopgun pops and bumblebeed beats"), lists ("electrogrunge/Burundi/square-dance/parade-music"), and holy-shit hyphenates ("crawl-on-your-belly-like-a-reptile throb"). Reading Eddy's new anthology, Rock and Roll Always Forgets, you learn to either welcome these devices like old friends or, if they start getting on your nerves, to simply skim over them. 

Most striking is the tone of confrontation. Eddy also loves the sound of breaking glass, and he uses Michael Jackson to rail against whatever stones he finds in his own passway. Racing through a secret history of aggressive Jackson lyrics, Eddy challenges, "But who noticed? We were too stupid to understand the subtlety he's been shoving in our face for the last 21 years." Regarding the album's sound, he asks, "If there's nothing new happening on this record, as certain fools have claimed ... how do they explain all this noise?" Critical darlings suffer similar scorn: "And if Living Colour and Fugazi, neither of whom know the first thing about music-as-pleasure, can get away with piles of protests about not a damned thing we didn't already know, why shouldn't the most popular entertainer in the world be allowed the same courtesy?" Eddy Bugbear #1 is Lazy Critical Consensus; the most recent piece in this anthology is entitled "The Year of Too Much Consensus." For Eddy, other criticism is as surefire and entertaining a foil as Harold Bloom's School of Resentment, Paul Krugman's Very Serious People, or Pauline Kael's Auteur Theory motherfuckers. Eddy's spirit of confrontation fits his Michael Jackson review like a crowbar fits a windshield. It's magnificent.


Eddy has relished critical controversy from the get-go. The second-oldest piece here is The Writer's Jukebox: An Interview with Chuck Eddy"Over and Out," an excerpt from Eddy's 1983 Pazz & Jop poll comments. Eddy opens with scathing outsider logic: "How the fuck can you revolutionize an industry which has accepted Pere Ubu and Essential Logic and the Angry Samoans and Teenage Jesus and the Birthday Party? You can't." He goes on to lambaste "the rock critics of the world," himself included, and then he cries out for a "real rock'n'roll revolution" of his own - even though he immediately admits, "I'm not going to get one." 


Eddy has spent 25 years trying to prove himself wrong, showing "the rock critics of the world" that real music revolutions still happen, if only you know where and how to look. Like all revolutions, Eddy's depend on context - badgering alt-weekly readers that Gillette is better than the trip-hop they're supposed to like, or interviewing Mexican rock bands in the U.K. experimental music mag The Wire, of all places. "In avant-garde rock, attempts at noise disruption are so old-hat they no longer disrupt," he writes in an '89 Boston Phoenix piece on acid-house, "but in dancing-in-the-streets genres, they're a shock."

For Eddy, recognizing a revolution often means writing like a revolution, with whatever messiness and tedium that implies. In his hands, rock-crit rarely seems like a proper profession with rules. Few things hamstring Eddy's writing: certainly not elegance, The Elements of Style, or musicians' intentions. He's also not terribly concerned with what genre the music's supposed to be, as when he compares Ma$e's lyrics to Elton John, Prodigy, and Cinderella. Racial and cultural sensitivity has grown more important over the years; in one newly written intro, Eddy apologizes for sounding like a neocon senator when he makes fun of Boogie Down Productions and Living Colour. He doesn't retract "glam fags" from his Gillette review, though, and the new sensitivity can't keep him from loving the fascist power of a Montgomery Gentry video. In fact, un-hamstrung Eddy was exactly the right person to write about country music the last two decades, whether spotting the suburban soft-rock currents in K.T. Oslin or the "mentally unbalanced terrain" and "Gothic sense" of Mindy McCready, who "sings like she's tossing hair all over the place." In retrospect, Big & Rich's genre-demolishing debut album seems tailor-made for an Eddy rave.

Because Eddy has turned me on to more good music than anyone else, I tend to look the other way when his writing exhausts me. This has worked out pretty well. He'll obsessively quote and adapt lyrics, huffing and puffing his way through loooong paragraphs on Kid Rock and Eminem; he'll insist that "Gina G breathily metronomes too-childlike-to-be-suggestive 'ooh aah's as if she were a Kit-Cat clock ticking and tocking its way to the bank, its Cheshire smile bursting with catnip." As my derailed mind starts sinking under the weight of all that junk masquerading as energy, it's saved by one pure, shining thought: This Gina G song is gonna be good. I know this not from the description, but simply because Eddy says so. Chuck Klosterman writes in Rock and Roll's foreword, "[T]he music he likes makes him impossible to understand. If you want to understand Chuck Eddy for real, you need to focus on the music he hates." But Klosterman is wrong. Eddy's taste, as expressed in his writing and his lists of favorite music, is as internally unified yet uncanny as the actions of a Tolstoy character. You can predict what Eddy will think of something, and you'll often be wrong, but what he actually thinks will always make more sense, will fit Eddy's written persona better, than what you had in mind. Eddy's taste has a deep coherence that's close to unique among rock critics; Robert Christgau and Rob Sheffield come close, but I don't share their taste nearly as often.

So for an Eddy fan, it's a kick getting to read about his favorite music in-depth in these pages, especially when he's in its first flush of Chuck-love. Will to Power, the Lordz of Brooklyn, Banda Bahia, and White Wizzard are all here, because who else was going to write about them? So are unique takes on critics' pets like the White Stripes, Mantronix, and Timbaland. AC/DC and the Pet Shop Boys inspire wonderfully readable features, professionally polished while still recognizably Eddyan, hectoring and badgering. Eddy accuses the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant of singing worse than Miami freestylers Company B: "I think you wanna give us just enough pleasure to get by." Eddy goes on:

Tennant basically acts like he doesn't know what the hell I'm talking about ... I'm starting to like the Pet Shop Boys so much that I almost don't know what the hell I'm talking about myself.

Besides making me want to search out back issues of Request magazine, this giddy back-and-forth leaves me amazed that Eddy eked out a living at music writing for so long. Not because his writing is bad, but because it's too good. Most current rock critics get paid peanuts-to-nothing for their writing, but when it's not awash in petulant insults, our vast internet ocean of gatekeeperless freedom reads mostly like auditions for The Real Thing, or straightlaced ad copy, or studious analyses of Important Themes In Arcade Fire Albums. Exceptions exist, particularly across blogs that invite conversation. (Eddy's '87 critique of Forced Exposure reads like half of a Tumblr spat.) But holy cow - especially if you're not getting paid for a review, why not write like you've got nothing to lose, and then have the courage to invite dissent? At his paid and unpaid best, that's what Chuck Eddy has done for 25 years. He don't give a damn what other people think. What do you think about that?


LARB Contributor

Josh Langhoff is a church musician. He's written about music for The Village Voice, Burnside Writers Collective, The Singles Jukebox, two EMP Pop Conferences, his church newsletter, and his blog, Surfing in Babylon.


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