Real Punks Don’t Wear Black
This collection from Frank Kogan, longtime Village Voice contributor and editor/publisher of the fanzine Why Music Sucks, isn’t a greatest-hits package. It’s a Borgesian box set, filled with 30 years of outtakes, demos and ephemera, but also the best of what makes him one of the smartest, shrewdest and most honest critics publishing today. Kogan is an obsessive thinker, an interrogator returning again and again, testing new methods to see if his subjects will reveal their secrets.
Mostly they do. He writes about junior high school (“the threat of violence was always there”), Dylan (“Play those three [Dylan] songs, imagine that you’re the one singing…ask yourself not what the guy who wrote those words means by them, but what you mean by them”), theory and practice (“Simon Frith is Richard Meltzer’s secret sharer, though in photo negative”), the Stones (“[they] set the relation between performers and audience as one of potential unresolvable conflict”), pop (“Mariah’s totally irresponsible, she’s splashing all over the pool and off the planet, leaping buildings and outracing bullets”), and, above and before and around all else, punk.
The form and style of punk don’t matter; the spontaneity and aggression do. In that sense, critics like Kogan are punk. The interrogator’s principal tools are always surprise and force; they’re also his weakness. Apply enough force and eventually the subject yields whatever the interrogator needs whether it’s true or not. Kogan knows that dilemma. He presses and presses — and then qualifies, revises, doubts, circles and qualifies some more. He has to if he’s going to compare the “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” to the mambo. He considers the analogy — Dylan’s expansive lyrical repetition resembles the way mambo stacks horns and rhythms — and then discards it (Dylan isn’t polyrhythmic) altogether. He was wrong, but that doesn’t mean the intellectual risk was worthless.
Like his two mentors, Meltzer and Chuck Eddy, Kogan is deeply suspicious of those moments when the idea of the music becomes more important than the music, stands in place of the music. “I don’t want the idea instead of the music,” he says in one of the collection’s many interviews, “I want the idea to come with the music, to enrich the music, to be carried by the music. In Roxy Music, the idea was taking precedence.”
That isn’t another way of saying Kogan wants the immediacy of feeling from music; he’s suspicious of the PBS-ization of emotion too. He wants, illuminates, and conveys a sense of discovery in the widest range of individual and musical possibility, those moments of “really expressing yourself” — proof that music, and the hard work of getting at its meaning, doesn’t have to suck after all.