Face the Music

There's much ado about nothing in National Review's recent attack on rock & roll

Mourners stayed all night outside Graceland Mansion; home of Elvis Presley where the 42-year-old king of rock 'n' roll died yesterday of a heart attack. A man holds newspaper announcing his death in Memphis, Tenn. on August 16th, 1977. Credit: Fred Ross/Toronto Star via Getty

Few things in the realm of public foofaraw can guarantee such unalloyed amusement as the spectacle of iron-lipped conservative ideologues mounting yet another assault upon the battered fastness of rock culture — and inevitably tumbling assholes over elbows back down the slippery incline of their own vast incomprehension of the subject.

It was in anticipation of this evergreen pleasure that I opened the February 24th issue of National Review, the conservative fortnightly — a magazine edited by gentleman-polemicist William F. Buckley Jr. for the smug delectation of what I had always assumed to be the ascots-and-yachting element of the Republican party. And yet there, on this ground-breaking cover, was an illustration depicting Mick Jagger, of all people, at a grotesquely advanced age, gray haired and balding, his skin dotted with liver spots, but still clutching a microphone and presumably belting out what would have to be the 12,000th live rendition of "Satisfaction."

One "got it" immediately, of course — the treasured mass-mag coup of both eating one's cake (while lobbing a predictable spitball of surly derision at the hated Other Culture) and having it, too (the possibility of swelling the old sales curve with an impasto of normally forbidden pop glitz). The cover line, ROCK OF AGEDS, was about what you'd expect from clever conservatives — too cute without being particularly acute — but it was kind of intriguing, too.

Was National Review calling for an end to menopausal rock hegemony? Imploring some fire-breathing younger bands to step forth and kick out the jams? Had the spirit of punk finally reached Kennebunkport? Well, no, as it turned out. Nor did the article inside (with its more revealingly unbridled title: "That Old Devil Music") offer even the corny rhetorical focus of the cover head. It was, instead, a crude, sweeping spew, exhilarating in its rejection of all restraint and devoted, in virtually its four-page entirety, to two vividly delineated contentions: One, that rock & roll is dead — it died in 1977, with Elvis Presley; and two, that what's cynically marketed as rock music today is a worthless, pornographic din perpetrated by militant homosexuals, calculating androgynes and codpiece-clad Satanists. Period.

It was not the sort of piece that one could say was distinguished by the elegance of its reasoning, the acumen of its assertions or even the accuracy of its facts. Confronted with such a cornucopia of wrongheadedness and sloppy research, one wondered where even to begin picking it all apart. The big stuff first? The article's author, one Stuart Goldman, set up rock music as a universally malevolent force by describing it as "the most prosperous industry in the world" — whereas observers outside the politically constricted National Review orbit might cite the international arms industry or organized religion as more massively qualified candidates for that title. Goldman also contended that "the music scene today" is "rife with homosexual rock groups, like Frankie Goes to Hollywood" — when in fact that hapless group had its one and only hit on the U.S. pop charts four years ago and has long since disbanded.

Goldman's littler nits offered pretty tempting pickings, too. He asserted, rather rabidly, that rock & roll had "conquered and subjugated a generation" by 1960 — a year in which Percy Faith's moony orchestral tune "The Theme From 'A Summer Place'" topped the pop chart for nine straight weeks and teen sweetie Brenda Lee lodged two of her ickier hits in the Top Forty for a total of thirty-one weeks. He described the late Roy Orbison as a "Fifties star," when, apart from one minor and uncharacteristic rockabilly hit for Sun in 1956, all of Orbison's classic records charted in the Sixties. And Goldman also seemed baffled by the identity of Jeff Lynne ("Who?" he inquired, parenthetically), a man who scored nineteen Top Forty hits as the leader of Electric Light Orchestra and also produced and collaborated on George Harrison's big 1987 comeback album, Cloud Nine.

It quickly became evident that Goldman found not just little but absolutely nothing to approve about rock music today. Among newer performers, he particularly disliked those possessed of what he considered an insufficiently emphatic sexual orientation (chief among these "the lank-jawed Michelle Shocked, the bald-pated Sinéad O'Connor and the muscular Tracy Chapman"). And older rockers apparently struck him as ridiculous by definition: Writing about the Traveling Wilburys — the group that restored Roy Orbison to the top of the charts for the first time in more than twenty years — Goldman said, "Fortunately for the band, which is decidedly mediocre, Orbison expired last month [well, on December 6th, to intrude an element of precision here], giving it some much-needed cachet."

Sliding over all the usual right-wing ideological goop (rock as collectivist worship of self, rock as anarchic disintegrative factor), I soon began to wonder more closely about Stuart Goldman himself — a man whose sunless conclusions seemed clearly inspired, not just by the obvious shortcomings of contemporary rock, but also, and to a rather alarming extent, by the author's baroque sexual phobias and his own particular midlife psychodrama.

Goldman described himself in the article as a disenchanted rock & roll veteran: an experienced pop-music critic ("I wrote for all the usual publications"); a former guitarist with a band that actually toured and recorded ("the whole bit"); and, at present, "a nationally syndicated columnist." I wondered why I had never heard of him, and why no one I queried in New York had ever heard of him, either. I finally located some people who had heard of Goldman — a handful of writers in Los Angeles who described him, in more or less unflattering detail, as a crank. When I finally made contact with Goldman himself, by phone, he more or less agreed.

"I guess I'm a curmudgeon," he allowed, quite amiably, while detailing his bona fides. He was the first music editor of the L.A. Weekly, for one year back in the Seventies, but was eventually "hounded out" of that publication "because they didn't like my politics, I guess"; he was also dropped by the Los Angeles Times, another of the papers for which he once wrote. He said that he is now thought of as "the Morton Downey of print journalism" and that "the Buckley people seem to accept my stuff. I find it odd to be in that company, but I'm a conservative."

His on-the-road experience consisted of two and a half years spent in the mid-Seventies as a guitarist with former Kingston Trio member John Stewart and with Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw's band — a stint that ended, he said, "when my eardrum blew up, and I was fat and just quit." His "nationally syndicated column," as he described it, seemed a rather small-scale affair, handled until recently by a Florida outfit called Columbia Features; right now, though, he syndicates it himself and says his main outlet is a South Carolina paper called The Charleston News and Courier.

Goldman employed some outside quotes in his article, mainly from Allan Bloom, the author of the conservative best seller The Closing of the American Mind, and from Robert Pattison, concocter of that classic of insufferable academic rock think, The Triumph of Vulgarity. I was more curious, however, about two fellow music-business conservatives Goldman quoted in his article as authoritative illustrations of how oppressive such a degenerate anarchic-collectivist industry could be for political nonconformists. One of these people, a man named Eric Apoe, was described, rather unprepossessingly, I thought, as a "former Chappell Music staff writer"; the other, Mark Ferjulian (whose name was consistently misspelled throughout the article), was said to be the "manager of a stable of popular rock groups." Ferjulian, whom I later talked to, turned out to be an acquaintance of Goldman's who does some business-management work for Richie Furay, formerly of Poco. Apoe, another acquaintance, is probably most notable, by Goldman's account, for having once played drums in the Doug Kershaw band. (By the way, according to Ferjulian — who says he still loves rock & roll, whatever its excesses — his quotes in the Goldman article were taken out of context and even altered. Goldman himself asserts that his manuscript was considerably reworked by National Review editors, who also enriched it with such addenda as an Edmund Burke mot about the desirability of "a manly, regulated liberty." Review editor John O'Sullivan would allow only that the Goldman piece was subject to "the usual editorial back and forth.")

All of this was beginning to seem rather sad. Goldman appeared to be an earnest (if homophobic) person who, like others his age (forty-three), had simply lost all interest in the ever-evolving rock music he had once loved. He told me he'd never listened to a Bruce Springsteen song all the way through and hadn't really listened to any pop records at all since about 1980. Today, he said, his tastes run to "western swing and elevator music — I like that." So how was he able to sufficiently refurbish his expertise in order to pen the National Review critique? By watching MTV for two days and reading a bunch of rock magazines, he said.

This tended to explain some of his more inflamed assertions about Satanism in rock. For example: "You needn't go to a slasher film to see a woman being disemboweled in a Satanic ritual — just turn on your local music-video station." I took this — correctly, Goldman confirmed — to be a reference to a fairly notorious video for a song called "Mother," by the dazzling group Danzig — a clip that does, for the record, contain Satanist trappings (pentagrams, defaced crosses) but has nothing to do with disemboweling women. (There's an edit in it that jumps from a shot of a live chicken being dangled above a bikini-clad blonde on an altar directly to a shot of a bloodlike substance suddenly splattering on her stomach. That's as "evil" — and as dopey — as it gets.) This version of the video, rejected for airplay by MTV (as similarly violent clips by such head-banger stars as Mötley Crüe have also been), was shown once on the cable channel — by mistake. Goldman figured he must have seen it that one time — a fluke that would not seem to bolster alarums about a Satanist plague on the airwaves.

Goldman looks at rock music today and finds much of it — from prancing glam bands to inarguably misogynous Sam Kinison videos — to bear no connection to the great rock & roll he grew up loving and living for back in the Fifties and Sixties. In some cases, he has a point: There's plenty of garbage on the rock-and-pop scene today (but then, when was there not?). In other cases, it seems, he's simply too far removed from his own youth to remember the thrill of rebellion and outrage that great rock — and even junk rock — can often foster.

Goldman is a sad case: an original rock fan who, somewhere along the line, lost track of rock's original message — that there is joy in freedom; that liberty (to think, to feel, to rock out) is essential to human happiness. (These are precepts I had always supposed to rank high in the pantheon of conservative virtues — wrongly, it now appears.) Today, finding himself with nothing left to love, Goldman positions himself as proudly out of it — as if that were a bold aesthetic stance and not just simple codgery.

"You know how I knew whan I was old?" he said. "When I sold all my old Rolling Stones two months ago. I said, 'Now I'm old.'"

Meanwhile, back at National Review, editor O'Sullivan says he's planning more pop-cultural coverage, mainly because "the great economic subjects that dominated the Seventies no longer loom so large." And so we — or at least the 125,000 people who actually read National Review on a regular basis — may eventually be treated to further meaningless and uninformed point scoring against rock & roll and the style of life and thought that it has inspired over the last thirty-five years. It's a great subject, of course; but one that National Review-style conservatives have quite obviously never understood, even in what passed for their own youth.