In the 30 years since it first gained broad popularity, rock ‘n’ roll has put on some show; it has been by turns entertaining, grotesque, energetic, absurd—and always “successful.” There were even times when it had a good beat and you could dance to it.

But since the 60’s, the decade of pervasive Relevance, an even better show has taken place off-stage, around the kids-turned-writers-turned-critics who early hitched a ride on the big Rock Train, struggling ever since to appear in control while hanging on for dear life. Within this group, no one has struggled harder than Dave Marsh, “America’s Best-Known Rock Writer,” as he is described on his own book covers. Marsh stands alone in this crowd of freeloaders for one reason: he has decided he owns the railroad.

Dave Marsh is a critic with an agenda propped up by a cause. The agenda calls for a political union of “rock star, steelworker, [music] industry professional, welfare mother, and just plain fan,” all responding to rock ‘n’ roll “as a potent vehicle through which what’s right and wrong about America and the world is expressed, discussed, and analyzed.” His cause is the “intrinsic value” of rock ‘n’ roll, its “fruitful cultural tradition,” and its political potential for dragging “the unwanted and faceless, the pissed-off and brokenhearted into the spotlight.”

Marsh’s primary theme is that “this is the day of the Big Lie, not just about the meaning of the music but about . . . the heart of America itself” For those in doubt about the pervasiveness of the Lie, Marsh supplies plenty of evidence: he accuses Ray Charles of “criminal behavior” for singing “with the bloodthirsty and jingoist Reagan regime” at the Republican National Convention; he declares that the riot after Diana Ross’s Central Park concert was “inevitable” in a city “where only 10 percent of the minority youth have full-time jobs”; he complains that because the U.S. Postal Service has not issued a commemorative Elvis Presley stamp, “there is absolutely no sign that Presley . . . will ever be honored in his native land.”

Marsh explains that one of the “driving forces” behind American pop music is “the need for those who suffer most in our segregated, unequal country to express their particular reality on their own terms.” Within these terms, Madonna’s fame is “historic necessity” and Prince’s “art” with a beat culminates “an American tradition that goes back to Walt Whitman,” a tradition that “deserves an honored place in the classroom, both for its intrinsic value and as an educational tool.” Some parents may object to the messages in rock ‘n’ roll, but “shielding our children from images of sex and violence will only warp their outlook and make them ill-equipped to deal with the real world.”

Pronouncements can be found on almost every page of The First Rock & Roll Confidential Report, a book by Marsh and his associates, who publish Rock & Roll Confidential (“The Voice of the Undesirable Element”), a monthly newsletter for the seriously serious. In “Paperback Writer,” a dated article from this book, one Sandra Choron writes that the B. Dalton chain, in a move to eliminate overstock, is removing many of the rock books “glutting the paperback shelves.” Thus, book chains “are determining what will be read.” As a result of this “devastating” decision, buyers can no longer “count on finding” Nowhere to Run or The Big Beat or Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n Roll (an affectionate book that Choron labels “scabrous,” probably because author Nick Tosches indecently claims that rock ‘n’ roll “flourished because it sold” and that its heroes “all had one thing in common: they liked Cadillacs”). The consequence is that profit-hungry booksellers “curb the literary marketplace in a manner that is nothing short of artistic suppression, a clear violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the First Amendment.”

What is interesting here is the I Can’t Make Sense So I’ll Make Noise method of argument, which is distinguished by the substitution of indignation for logic and volume for clarity. To make it work, start with a conclusion—one that does justice to your natural sense of outrage (book chains engage in artistic suppression). Then close your eyes and lurch backward until you bump into an assumption that feels like proof (certain books cannot be found). Now stumble onto a shocker that surprises no one but you (businesses are interested in profit). Finally, flop down on the First Amendment, open your eyes, and feel proud of yourself.

In addition to half-baked ideology and collective intellectual expediency. The First Rock & Roll Confidential Report offers up Dave Marsh the writer. In his introductory essay. Marsh places rock ‘n’ roll in its proper cultural context: “In an urban, industrial society, people can only make (and transmit) culture by using the technology provided by that society. A Big Mac is a hamburger; it’s not a ‘real hamburger’—that’s a conundrum evident to everyone who has ever enjoyed the taste of both. Such distinctions are ultimately useful mostly (if not only) to those who despise hamburgers in general, probably because burgers are vulgar.” He winds this up with a warning to “pay attention to the fact that, in the good stuff (music as well as burgers), there’s a kernel—or a nugget—of something bigger.”

If that’s not enough to turn you off rock journalism and hamburgers for life, Mr. Analogy deepens this conundrum with another kernel (nugget?): “Within the bloodstream of the market, rock and its associated subcultures function like a herpes virus, sometimes dormant but periodically erupting with embarrassing, disfiguring, and, worst of all, unpredictable consequences (aggravated by stress). Like herpes, rock isn’t immobilizing to the system it inhabits—but it can be contagious.” Is there a doctor in the house? An editor?

“Rock saved my life,” Dave Marsh has written. And here is the beginning of his confusion. Leaving aside the fact that melodrama suits the self-absorbed, one could conclude from his declaration either that rock ‘n’ roll possesses inherent life-saving properties, or that Dave Marsh has the kind of personality that could be hauled back from the brink by The Who.

But by making himself his own best and constant proof, Dave Marsh has become an ideological nag, which in turn has made him a fraud as a critic, a broken record of gripes. He bought into the wheezing rock myth that the music “came into the world fighting for its life,” and from that myth developed the proposition that rock ‘n’ roll is a social catalyst, a political umbrella, and meaningful comfort to the oppressed. It didn’t, and it isn’t.

Rock ‘n’ roll sprang up in the 50’s like a big goofy weed in the pop music garden, and far from fighting for its life it quickly took over the plot (leaving others to fight for their survival—anybody remember Eddie Fisher?). Rock suggested to its large and ready natural audience—adolescents (not to be confused with mythical Teenagers)—an outline of their own special disposition: it was spontaneous, fun-seeking, deliberately but not dangerously provocative, and naive—a good-natured bluff, an inside joke shared by millions. Because the music did not concern itself with issues of taste, good or bad, it avoided both pretentiousness and vulgarity.

The result of this insouciance was a coarse sensibility matched with a stylistic integrity, a combination that not only characterized early rock ‘n’ roll but was its reason for being. Rock sent back the message it received: Style could be valid without having to be relevant. (It could also be invalid without being relevant, but that would come later.) The music did not create a moment, it ran into one. And the “preachers and politicians” never laid a hand on it.

If rock ‘n’ roll’s initial success was inevitable, so was its eventual mutation. The one assault to which the music was not impervious found it soon enough. The assault was intellect, brought on the scene by critics for the self-promoting purpose of Explaining Things. Would-be rock critics took one look at the galloping weed (a nice enough weed, but a weed) and decided that by calling the thing an orchid they certified themselves as botanists.

That decision brought with it the pomposity and affectation that hang to this day over the big Rock Train like a bad smell. One whiff brings the discovery that USA for Africa is not a rock charity project but is “part of a profoundly political process, whether or not its participants are aware of it.” (It’s amazing how often Marsh knows more about people than they know about themselves.) If you think Bruce Springsteen is a popular American rock star whose music is open to the personal interpretation (or noninterpretation) of the fans who foot the bill, you’d best sniff again. This is Marsh’s Springsteen, busy spitting “into the eye of a bleak land that destroys other countries in preposterous wars and devastates its own citizens by refusing them even the simple dignity of a job.”

Move further downwind and catch a waft of Prince, doing his part for tradition by “hump[ing] the speakers.” Or this: “Most American listeners concluded that ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ was just another pop record.” Breathe deeper, if you dare: “Without a grounding in socialism or any other kind of systematic thinking about political life and events (a grounding American education rarely offers), the oblique references and criticisms made in songs like ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ fall on ears of stone.” Think of it: rock fans are being told they need a grounding—in systematic political thinking, no less—before they can approach the Top 40. This from a man who wouldn’t know systematic thinking in any variety if it leaped fully formed from his Big Mac. No wonder these people are “pissed-off and brokenhearted.”

If this situation were worthy of irony—which it is not—the irony would be that by willfully misinterpreting the thing he sought to defend. Marsh has hopelessly fouled up what he professed to love. Along the way, he has demanded affirmation of rock’s value from the very people he mocks as unfit to speak its name. To that demand, perhaps the appropriate response may be found in the words of Jimmie Rodgers, representative of America’s fruitful musical tradition: “Get off, get off, you railroad bum.”


[The First Rock & Roll Confidential Report, by Dave Marsh (New York: Pantheon Books) $12.95]