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.