In 2008, I wrote a book. It’s a conservative argument about sex, rock ‘n’ roll and God. All three things, I argue, can only be fully understood if interpreted through orthodox Catholicism.
I had had a publisher and everything. But starting late last year I doubted it would ever be published. There were problems. The first draft, which I did in 2008, wasn’t very good. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I was working on it I had been suffering from cancer. It made working difficult. I was easily exhausted, and couldn’t concentrate for long periods of time. My joints were sore. I was depressed. In 2008 my publisher told me the manuscript I had sent, which was only 100 pages (it was always going to be a shorter book), was not ready for publication. He was a fan of my writing, but something had gone wrong. After that he did not answer calls and emails.
About a month later I was diagnosed with cancer. I went through six months of chemo. As I began to feel better, I went back to the manuscript. My editor had been right. It was not ready. The cancer had been making me so weak, and had come on so gradually, that I had realized how badly it was affecting my work. The manuscript read like a magazine article. I started adding to it, for no other reason than pride. Now that I was better I was embarrassed that I had submitted second-rate work. The chance to get it published had past; I had even been put in the publisher’s catalogue briefly, then removed from the following one. But purely for honor, I wanted to do a better job. I edited half of it and added about 100 new pages. Then I sent it back. I had no illusions about hearing back.
The only steady thing I had at the time was as a substitute teacher at St. Teresa’s, a Catholic elementary school outside Washington. The school parish had a small graveyard next to it where F. Scott Fitzgerald was buried. Between classes I would go over and read the epitaph, the last line from “The Great Gatsby”: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” My father and I had sometimes driven over to visit the grave when dad was alive. Before his death in 1996, Dad had been a writer, which is what I had wanted to be. I even shared F. Scott’s birthday—Sept. 24. I had grown up in a passionate, funny, and heavy-drinking Irish-Catholic house. We idealized writers and journalists. I could mark my life not only by when I had first fallen in love or gotten a driver’s license or gone to college, but also when I had read the books that shaped me. Sixth grade: “The Lord of the Rings.” Eighth: “A Separate Peace” and “The Lord of the Flies.” High school was “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Great Gatsby” and Shakespeare. In college I got hooked on the modernists—Joyce, Hemingway, and also the great journalists H.L. Mencken, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe.
Literature was what had kept me in school. I was a troublemaker growing up, and more than one teacher had mentioned that my love of books and ability to write good papers was often the difference between reform school and prep school. But writing now seemed like a dead end. My father had died in 1996, and even though I had published a few books, I was not making a career out of it. The Internet had vaporized journalism as a viable option financially, and my developing hatred of journalists didn’t help. For years I had freelanced for the Washington Post, but as I developed different tastes and interests—not to mention reverting to Catholicism—I began to outgrow the tropes needed to work at such a place. My contempt foe the entirely profession made me defeatist. This was a field that made Chris Matthews a millionaire.
For a short time, I thought I could have a dream career as a rock critic. I was getting steady freelance work as a record reviewer for the Washington Post. Rock ‘n’ roll had saved my life when I was younger. It was something that provided beauty, hope, honesty and excitement when the rest of life did not. Indeed, it was one of the topics of my unpublished book. One of the greatest literary influences on me had been Melody Maker, the British music magazine that folded in 2000. I was in college in the mid to late 1980s when Melody Maker—“MM”—was at its creative peak. A gifted journalist named Allan Jones had been hired to run the magazine in 1984, and he would hire some of the best writers in rock criticism or any other field—people like Chris Roberts, Steve Sutherland and Simon Reynolds. The publishers had had the guts to hire Jones after he sent a letter telling them, “Melody Maker needs a bullet up the arse, and I’m the one to pull the trigger.” Now that’s rock ‘n’ roll.
Rock music writing today is clichéd, soporific, unreadable, and I still go through the old MMs in my closest when I need some great music writing. Here’s Jan. 3, 1987—a review, by Chris Roberts, of a live show by punk godfather Iggy Pop. Here’s its first paragraph:
It’s in the white of my eyes. The rest of the world, if there still is one, can lie down and die. Tonight Iggy is the strongest, the loudest, the dirtiest, the best, the worst, the fittest of the survivors, and the most powerful propaganda for LIFE I’ve seen on a stage since the Good Luck Theatre Company’s Sam Shepard perspective. Iggy’s been reading a lot of Sam recently, and some Edward Albee….He never stops moving.
It’s more than two decades old, yet still ignites off the page. It is passionate, literate, free of cliché, and charged with a sense of adrenaline and fun. You can tell Chris Roberts loves the music, with a love that explodes the crustaceous tropes that have come to signify rock writing. He takes it seriously as art, and yet also feels its joy, its thrill. Roberts’ piece is more vital, readable and powerful than the reviews that appeared in my copy of today’s Washington Post.
The formula for rock writing these days is very simple, and more conservative than a Republican barbecue in Houston. First, the rock writer must convey a sense of aloofness—he’s the judge, after all, and can’t get too carried away. Second, he must seem knowledgeable, so it’s necessary to toss in some facts about the artists. But he’s also lazy, so most often these facts are cribbed from a bio sheet provided by a record company. Third, he must be liberal, awarding bands extra points if they grumble or seethe with resentment about Republicans and conservatives. And lastly, he must employ the arsenal of rock clichés so expertly itemized in small book The Rock Snob’s Dictionary. Music is must be “atmospheric.” Something isn’t loud, it’s a “rave-up.” A guitar riff is “coruscating“ or it “jangles.“ Great albums are “seminal.“ And, of course, lifeless descriptors must be used—“indie rock,” “alt-country,” “trip-hop,” “post-punk.”
Breaking out of these formula, using different references or simply getting so carried away—by a music whose charm is, as U2’s Bono put it, that you “abandon yourself to it” – is ruled out of bounds.
Here are some reviews from the Washington Post. A new album by Amos Lee:
“Last Days at the Lodge” opens with a burst of Dylanesque swagger, a reminder that singer-songwriter Amos Lee once toured with the folk-rock legend. But soon Lee moves on to what he does best: smoothly evoking his R & B and soul influences in ways that seem far more heartfelt than derivative.” Another piece calls Alejandro Escovedo an “alt-country-deity-cum-mainstream curiosity.” And here’s Paleolithic rocker Joe Cocker—“when he sings Stevie Wonder’s ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” writes Post veteran Geoffrey Himes, “Cocker isn’t revisiting ‘60s radical chic; he’s channeling genuine anger about today’s politics.”
Of course. If there’s one thing that will give any modern rock musician a pass with critics, it’s liberalism. Indeed, the deduct points if a musician is not fully committed to the cause. In his review of Coldplay “Viva La Vida,” Rolling Stone’s will Hermes deducted points because the band, whose opinions are just to the left of the Daily Kos, was not sufficiently anti-Republican. “There’s something troubling about his lack of clear political messages,” Hermes notes, adding that “the title track seems to be about the end of an empire. But its rousing chorus — ‘I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing/Roman cavalry choirs are singing’ — feels like a rallying cry for a Christian empire. Where’s an Arabic violin break when you need one?” This kind of useful idiocy can reach levels of self-parody. John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” is, according to Rolling Stone’s Mark Kemp, something of a downer: “There’s not a bright, catchy riff or fist-pumping anthem to be found among these brooding, low-key songs about growing old, sick, lonely an pessimistic.” So why the four stars? Well, “it’s unlikely that the Republican candidate would find anything useful for his campaign on ‘Life, Death, Love and Freedom.’”
While the writers for Melody Maker were hardly RNC members—or rather Tories, as it was a British paper—they never hesitated to gore rock ‘n’ roll sacred totems. In one series called “Pop! The Glory Years” they marked John Lennon’s descent into nutty self-importance, concluding that even years before his death “he just didn’t martyr anymore.” They ran lists of “The Ten Worst Band in the World,” and included Led Zeppelin—“revile them always”—and, yes, the Beatles: “Loveable mop tops, my back passage.” Editor Allan Jones, writing about Los Lobos, examined their songs as elegy for modern America—and concludes that they indeed are, but that “in the end there is only prayer.” This is honest, full-bodied criticism, not beholden to any agenda but the writer’s own expansive honesty and intelligence. In 1987, MM writer Simon Reynolds went to a show of gloomy rockers The Jesus and Mary Chain and indicted not only the band but the audience: “Of course the fans—a sad-eyed sea of black clothes, black dye, leather and hair gel—were satisfied. But then these people will be here in 1997, wanting the same things.”
Yep. Everything changes but the avant-garde. I eventually lost my freelancing privileges at the Post. I had a piece on a jazz musician rejected because I had written that his music reminded me of Easter. I told the editors that they were idiots, and that the music writing was awful. I was essentially pulling an Allan Jones, who had scored a job at Melody Maker by offering to sent a bullet up the arse of the magazine. The Post, still arrogant despite losing tens of millions in revenue and thousand of subscribers every year, decided to stay with what was not working.
After that, I wrote my book. It had sought to combine my philosophy into a treatise. It was about sex, rock music and Catholicism, and it would finally convince someone to hire me. I had been signed up to do it based on my record as a journalist and author of few books for smaller publishers. But then, when the work began, I began to struggle due to my illness. Then in the winter of 2008, I got a one-sentence email: they were killing the book. It just wasn’t complete. It was more of a magazine article. A month later, I admitted myself to the emergency room with a pain in my side and found out I had cancer. But at least I had my honor. I had redone the book for my own sake.
Last week, I left my house feeling overwhelmed with bitterness and rage. I hated those dipshit liberals at the Washington Post, with their glib, ironic copy. They could run down the music genres like Rain Man doing phone numbers, but they had no soul. Almost as bad were the conservatives, whose refusal to cover pop music was a sad hangover from the neoconservative roots in Marxism. My doctor had decided to put me on an experimental “maintenance” drug, and there were awful side effects. I couldn’t support my girlfriend, who wanted to hope we had a future together. I had spent a $1,000 I didn’t have to take courses on education that had me sitting through lefty propaganda five days a week.
This universe of hopelessness was collapsing in on itself. I had reached an end point. Why was I alive? What was the point? I was Jay Gatsby without the money. Borne back ceaselessly into the past, I had no future.
I went to the Black Cat, a rock club in D.C. I just wanted to be anywhere to feel something alive and beautiful. And again, rock and roll saved me. The band was called The Morning Benders, a group from San Francisco. They were about two minutes into their song “Excuses” when I felt a rush of joy. The Morning Benders’ music is a sublime mix of influences: Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Phil Specter, and every great garage band that ever lived. I felt validated. Even if my book was never published, its thesis had been right. Rock and roll wasn’t about nihilism. It was about hope. Hope in the face of the cruel world.
When I got home, there was an e-mail from my publisher:
Hi Augustine –
I got the changes you made to the manuscript. Great stuff. We plan on publishing the book this summer.
Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.