“All these [records] were milestones, each one fried my brain a little further, especially the experience of the first few listenings….The whole purpose of the absurd, mechanically persistent involvement with recorded music is the pursuit of that priceless moment.”
–Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
“That priceless moment” is a central obsession, perhaps the central obsession, of Bangs’ career. It inspired flights of unparalleled ecstasy and jags of soul-crushing despair. It drove him to drugs and later, to renounce them (at least in print). And most importantly, it fueled reams of incomparable writing — writing alive with energy, spirit, joy, inspiration.
I can only assume that all music lovers, from critics to professional fans to ardent clubbers, share a similar, if less all-consuming, passion. No matter how distant or unlikely, each new release offers the potential promise of revelation, an obscure pathway back to the generative moment of initial infatuation. Oft-repeated rumors of rock ‘n’ roll’s demise invariably suggest more about the speaker than the medium — another true believer losing faith in his or her quest for the eternal, ephemeral moment.
Admittedly, I haven’t always been so sanguine about rock’s future (or present, for that matter); such impressions understandably exhibit a natural ebb and flow. But for almost a year now, I’ve been enjoying a musical rush as prolonged and intense as any I’ve experienced since the mid-’80s — thanks in no small part to a project I’ve come to regard affectionately as Manzler’s Folly.
Dave Marsh’s The Heart Of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made has long proven an essential bathroom read. But only after purchasing my first CD burner did the tome begin to exert an undue influence. Soon, I found myself piecing together 25-track collections from Marsh’s selections. 21 CDRs and 500-plus tracks into this on-again/off-again project, some might fear psychosis, but I’ve always considered listomania to be a relatively benign symptom of music-love.
To be honest, Marsh is hardly my bedfellow of choice. I’m a lifetime subscriber to Rock & Rap Confidential more for his cadre’s stridently unflinching political animus than their musical leanings. Marsh is tin-eared when it comes to punk and, as he admits in his sole P-Funk entry, lead-assed regarding funk. Thankfully, he’s more conversant with such disparate stylistic offshoots as country, blues, reggae, garage, surf and, of course, the holy soul. The title’s knowing substitution belies its none-too-covert agenda. From doo-wop to disco, from Stax/Volt to hip-hop, Heart Of Rock & Soul argues persuasively for the primacy of black pop.
Mind you, that contention may not be best served by a literal end-to-end sequencing of its individual components. Many segues understandably jar, and the collection’s smattering of outright duds engenders disproportionate annoyance. After more than 15 years, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” is still guaranteed to induce migraine, and Stevie Nicks’ “Edge Of Seventeen”, Waddy Wachtel-muscled live take or not, flies like a white-winged turkey.
But more often than not, this is the rock ‘n’ roll radio of my dreams. The paired “Mannish Boy” (Muddy Waters) and “Running Scared” (Roy Orbison) neatly encapsulate the extremes of male sexuality, while the Kendalls’ “Pittsburgh Stealers” provides apt feminine counterpoint. The Jewels’ raw, unpolished “Hearts Of Stone” fades inexorably into the prefatory count-off of Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”. And the unlikely transition from the Stanleys’ “Rank Strangers” to the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The U.K.” condenses an epoch’s worth of dread and anomie into a devastatingly concise 1-2.
Marsh imagines a vast, expansive dialogue across decade, style, gender and race, all in his stated purpose to overturn album-rock hegemony. And over 700-odd pages of wrangling, polemics, backstory and agape, he weaves a genuinely compelling argument. But as the author would surely acknowledge, his truest, deepest proof lies in the grooves. The volume’s de facto soundtrack furnishes a joyous, unrepentant, often surprising testimony: songs dimly recalled from pre-adolescence (old/new Rick Nelson favorite “Garden Party”) or unjustly forgotten after fledgling inquiries (Bobby Bland’s heart-stricken “Lead Me On”), songs known before only as covers (I blush, the Marvelows’ ebullient “I Do”) or simply by legend (Mac & Maurice’s soulful paradigm “You Left The Water Running”).
No matter the guiding intent, such assemblages inevitably prove canonical. And as we all know, after several decades of gender-and-race-abetted revisionism, canons are an archaic, ultimately pernicious remnant of discredited patriarchy. But unlike the American Film Institute’s annual litany of industry approved, catalog churning tombstones, Marsh’s project is hearteningly dynamic, inviting thought, discourse, even censure. Like the music we love, Heart Of Rock & Soul is decidedly of the moment; Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” isn’t the greatest single ever, merely the best at a particular time and place for a particular individual.
Similarly, my latest folly represents a wholly personal salve, a private means to reinvigorate a lifelong passion. That said, anyone who shares my peculiar affliction is certainly susceptible. Co-editor Grant Alden has threatened a similar undertaking in anticipation of ND contributing editors David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren’s upcoming Heartaches By The Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, and Gary Giddins’ recent Village Voice “Post-War Jazz” survey definitely tempts.
Guilt, what guilt? Any activity that recalls the priceless 16-year-old moment when I first explored the wonders of Big Star’s Radio City can’t be all bad.