I’ve often speculated that our golden age—like many others before it—must sooner or later be followed by a corresponding dark age of confusion and ignorance in some Hegelian meta-dialectic of history that must trump the comparatively logical meanderings of evolution, both biological and cultural. We’ll have to start all over—won’t we?—the only question being the starting point. Our current cultural trajectory—gas-guzzling and mass-consuming and baby-producing—is simply not sustainable. Everybody knows it—witness the many end-of-days movie themes—yet no one is doing anything about it. There are no futuristic movies of healthy functioning societies. No, they’re all dysfunctional… unless they’re on a spaceship. The glory that was Peoria (my metaphor for high-tech civilization superimposed upon not-so-high-tech societies) may all crash down precipitously, unless some governments and societies can figure out a way to make the changes incremental and less drastic. The guy with the sign reading, “The end is near,” just may be right. Global climate change aside, the poop just may hit the ventilator regardless of what we do.
And sure enough dialogue in the US seems to have turned nasty in the last few years, as if the election of a black President—an intelligent black President at that—were reason enough to throw all social niceties to the wind and hunker down for the impending Apocalypse, every man for himself and a woman for him, too, barefoot and pregnant and begging for forgiveness. With the possible exception of the new poverty classes, probably nothing illustrates the paradigm shifts underway within modern societies better then the rise of a certain social medium or two which has changed the way people interact, socialize, and even think. That’s medium—neither rare nor well-done. If Facebook is the paradigm and ultimate dictator of short-attention-span fashion, then Twitter, Tumblr, and another large handful of online commentaries are the ranks and hierarchies through which multitudes of blogs and lesser opinions find their way into the critical mass of consciousness.
The mainstream media even gets swept into the fray through their online offerings, and it ain’t all pretty. Read the comments below any online article, no matter how minor, and the vitriol, hatred, and stupidity are so thick as to be almost incomprehensible from any rational viewpoint. Everybody’s an expert now, and a critic, too, and full of opinions that preclude any compromise. If Internet is the new democracy, then social media are the new tyranny. Like an earlier Industrial Revolution was the death of the craftsmanship that preceded it, the new technological revolution could be the death of professional expertise, intelligent commentary, and even worse—politeness. Apparently it’s occurred to few people that ‘kissing up’ is not the only reason to be polite. Civil discourse and tolerance of opposing positions is good in itself.
Notwithstanding that “politeness” and “politics” ultimately derive from the same root word, the concept extends far beyond the sometimes life-and-death business of government into fields that are nothing but matters of opinion, such as the arts. We aren’t nasty to each other for political expediency. We’re nasty because it’s in our lower nature to be so, and that’s all anyone seems to care about anymore. Criticism—whether literary, music, film, real estate or whatever—can be tricky business. Obviously it’s opinionated, by definition, but sometimes the critic can simply be wrong or misguided. The critic should have some credentials in the field in which he’s critiquing, preferably, but that seems to be no deal-killer usually. Since reviews are usually written, he or she should also be a good writer, but… you know. In fact sometimes a critic can offer a better critique in a field in which he’s not also a creator, something about conflicts of interest, I suppose.
Anyway I think I’ve seen both sides of this (I review music; others review my writing) and have formed a few habits of conscience and convenience. For one thing: I don’t skewer people. That’s people—full of flesh and blood and intent and hard work. Hollywood poster-boys and assorted sacred cows are another matter. Still for the most part, if I don’t particularly care for something, I just leave it alone. There are plenty of other things out there to review. The requirements of a polite society to me are more important than the need to try to gain some ground by diminishing others. Somebody has to be pretty pretentious—AND over-hyped—for me to want to take out the poison pen.
Still, many critics do. And when they do, perhaps it’s only fair to hold up the mirror to their own work, not always easy since most critics are not also creators of original material. This is my feeling toward Henry Rollins right about now. Now I’ve always felt a certain amount of respect for Henry, even if I wasn’t any huge fan of his work. Fact is, I’ve heard very little of his music, simply because radio stations don’t usually play it, so there’s that. But I have read much of one of his books, simply because it was one of the few things I had to do in Pudva, Montenegro, in a stopover there some three-four years ago. I was not particularly impressed, but still not vengeful toward the man. He travels widely and espouses it wildly, so that’s good. And I’ve read his LA Weekly columns and listened to his radio shows on KCRW since becoming a reluctant Angeleno, enjoying them both, so we should be good, right?
Then he went and dissed Jack Kerouac. He shouldn’t have done that. He didn’t have to, but he did, describing his work as something like “total BS.” That’s a harsh judgment, and an insult to any of us Kerouac fans, not to mention Jack himself, may he R.I.P. He could’ve just said, “not my cuppa tea,” and left it at that. Rollins is lucky he didn’t say that about W. S. Burroughs. I’ve got a gun, and I know how to use it—just kidding. What most people never understood about Jack was that he was essentially a poet, albeit a narrative one, and at the same time the chronicler of an age. Now by all appearances, Kerouac and Rollins should be sharing the same side of the dial, whether musical or literary, so I’m not sure what the problem is, probably something similar to the same reason Mick Jagger felt inspired to diss Patti Smith, something about dissing someone whose turf you envy and couldn’t touch with a ten-foot body part.
Regardless, I’d say confidently that Jack Kerouac could write spiral bindings around Henry Rollins, most obvious when Henry seems like he actually wants to be and do Jack, much less obvious when he sticks to the journalistic music criticism and curation which he really does quite well quite frequently, albeit in his own fashion. To support this theory, I offer the following evidence, a sample of Mr. Rollins’ own writing in a recent LA Weekly column. I’m not saying it’s bad; I’ll only say, “Imagine how Jack might’ve treated the same material,” then make your own decision:
September is upon us. In its final weeks, August was staggering crookedly, profusely bleeding from the puncture wound in its side from a dagger shot by an assassin dispatched by our collective heat-fueled discontent. Every year, August lashes out in volcanic fury, rising with the din of morning traffic, its great metallic wings smashing against the ground, heating the air with ever-increasing intensity. August, the great and doomed warrior of summer, knew that the end was near. Yet so titanic is its rage, it will takes weeks for its body to cool.
Late summer is fired, blasted winds, beginnings, middles and ends -- all ending. For some it's a parting wave to youth, love, conquest and deathless time. In the face of this destruction there is revelation, epiphany, agony and exhaustion. Empty pursuits on fruitless plains in search of lightning, or perhaps even nothing.
We know it, therefore we must slay it. We know that in September, we will wander through the warm winds of summer's wreckage. We will welcome summer's ghost…
There’s more, too, if you want it. Follow the link. So you decide. Critics are people just like you and me. The only difference between a critique and a criticism is that the critique has a publisher. Ultimately, though, the consumer is judge and jury. That’s you; you vote with your pocketbook. To all critics, I only suggest: be polite and be open and most of all, be professional. Opinions and shallowness are two closely related concepts. I’ll still be a fan of Mr. Rollins btw, but only for the things he does best. Sometimes the medium is not the message; the message is. BTW, I’ve now listened to Mr. Rollins’ own story-telling on mySpace while prepping this article, and guess what? Not bad… I’ve also listened to his original head-banging stuff on spotify from way back when, and… you know. We’ve all grown up.
For my own part, this is something of a crossroads for this blog. I’ve taken a bit of a break from my music reviews, not because I feel lazy or uninspired (okay, maybe a little), but mostly because I’ve been too busy with another project, the compilation of a couple of guides to hostels, the first in a series of a half-dozen intended to cover the entire world. Still, I hope and expect to turn some attention back to this blog soon, BUT… it may not be the same as before. As a few of you may know, I have some background in film, too, more than music in fact, so long have wanted to do some film reviews, too, especially the foreign films which almost never get press in the good ol’ US, and hopefully even art films which hardly ever get press anywhere. Unfortunately film PR people don’t send me advance copies of films to review, not yet anyway… bummer. Still, in the age of Netflix, that shouldn’t be a deal-killer, should it? I mean, it’s not like I ever paid that much attention to the publicist’s rap anyway, and I’d certainly never reprint ad copy verbatim. Sooo… stay tuned.