A READERS' GUIDE TO ROCK SNOB ENCYCLOPEDIA: AMERICANA-ZOMBIES.
Webster's defines "snob" as "one who has an offensive air of superiority in matters of knowledge or taste." But for our purposes it means discerning taste informed by years of obsessive study and dreamy contemplation in a teenage wasteland--not to mention a lot of lawns mowed and newspapers delivered to buy access to this blessed thing we call rock music.
The primary criterion for determining whether artists or genres were worthy of inclusion in this humble compendium is simple: They matter. Chart power, units shipped, Buzz Bin videos or four-star reviews mean nothing in the face of the following questions: Does it continue to speak to us? Does it remind us why we still love rock 'n' roll?
The secondary criterion is space and the lack thereof. As such, this collection is far from complete--perhaps that will be addressed in future editions. One last thing: I totally stole this concept from Vanity Fair. But then, rock music is borne of the tradition of loving theft. Long live rock!
Americana: (Musical movement 1776-present; aka alt-country, aka No Depression.) Often shortsightedly assumed to date back no further than the first Uncle Tupelo record, the Americana musical tradition in fact begins with that iconic bloodied fife-and-drum trio staggering out of the smoking ruins of the American Revolution. Forsaking macho jingoism for earthy backwoods aesthetics, Americana is a catchall phrase to encompass the impossibly wide breadth of American roots music, evoking the magnificent vistas of the national geography and the transcendental struggle of the American experience--the good, the bad, the ugly, the high and the lonesome. While rooted in the dusty old glory of homegrown musical traditions (folk, blues, bluegrass, Country & Western), Americana, as we currently understand it, stems from a postmodern remove--what egghead rock critic Greil Marcus calls the "gothic-romantic traverse of American self-regard." In other words, you don't have to be a farmer, sharecropper or hillbilly to make credible music in this tradition.
Beatles, The: The alpha and omega of pop. Tell your kids.
Big Star: Big Star was the sound of four Memphis boys caught in the vortex of a time warp, reinterpreting the glorious, jangling Brit-pop odes to love, youth and the loss of both that framed their formative years in the mid-'60s. Just one problem: It was the early '70s. They were out of fashion and out of time. Within the band, this disconnect with the pop marketplace would lead to bitter disillusionment, self-destruction and death. But that same damning obscurity would nurture their mythology and become Big Star's greatest ally, a formaldehyde that would preserve the band's scant three full-length albums--#1 Record, Radio City and Sister Lovers/Third--as perfect specimens of classic guitar pop.
Captain Beefheart: An enigma wrapped in a riddle: blues-braying Tasmanian Devil, industrial-strength surrealist, poet, painter, visionary, charlatan. Stirring together the primal, blacksnake moan of Delta trance-blues and the free-jazz headfuck of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus in the burbling psychedelic cauldron of '60s West Coast pop experimentalism, Beefheart's music was the stuff of spells and incantations, fire-walking and levitation. Safe as Milk, from 1967, remains the ideal starting point for Beefheart beginners, with all the trademarks of his sound pitched in perfect tandem: proto-garage snarl, menacing blues, Martian poetry, exotic rhythms and extraterrestrial sound effects. Purists point to Trout Mask Replica as the pinnacle of the Captain's canon, though only a small percentage of those who sing its praises actually listen to it for pleasure. Harsh, cryptic and moving sideways, backward and upside down all at once, Trout Mask's free-jazz-skronk-as-interpreted-by-rock-instruments remains a forbidding totem of post-hippie hieroglyphics. Those who manage to break its code are granted entry to a secret society of blissed-out noiseniks where, as legend has it, they are privy to all manner of esoteric knowledge (the ability to fly or make yourself disappear completely, that kind of thing).
Donovan: The original karma chameleon, the first New Dylan, flower-power troubadour, sunshine superman, cosmic starchild, hurdy-gurdy man. Although in the '60s he was regarded by some as a lightweight opportunist, a tourist in the Age of Aquarius, Donovan Phillip Leitch created some of the most deathless paisley pop of the flower-power era.
Eno, Brian: Eggheaded electronica wizard, inventor of "ambient," synthesizer-tweaker on the first two Roxy Music albums, in-demand record collaborator/producer (Bowie, Talking Heads, U2).
Erickson, Roky: Sixties psych/garage-rock pioneer, demon-crazed '70s solo artist, acid casualty, drug-war martyr, patron saint of alt-rock's fringe dwellers. In 1968, Erickson, then singer for Texas' psychedelic avatars 13th Floor Elevators, was busted for possession of a small quantity of marijuana and offered a choice: 10 years in prison or a stretch at Rusk State Psychiatric Hospital. He opted for the padded cell. Already half-fried from Herculean doses of psychedelics, Erickson was subjected to a cruel regimen of "experimental" drugs and electroshock therapy and was released three years later a diagnosed schizophrenic. In the '70s and early '80s, Erickson released a series of proto-punk solo records riddled with references to zombies, vampires, aliens and the devil himself, no doubt telegraphing the horror within.
Fahey, John: Aka Blind Joe Death, acoustic guitar abstract expressionist, drifter, hermit, some say sorcerer. Fahey did for the blues, folk and other American primitive idioms what Duchamp did for nudes descending staircases: invent a style of sonic portraiture that utilized clean, painterly chordal lines to illustrate the concentric circles of motion and being, managing to suggest the ancient, the immediate and the infinite all at once. Though heralded as one of the great fingerstyle guitarists of the 20th century, Fahey's itinerant 40 years of music-making bears the bite marks of as many hellhounds on his trail as any Delta bluesman mythos.
Geek Invasion 2013