The Decline And Fall of New York Times Rock Writing

Once upon a time, John Rockwell of The New York Times had power, and he used it brilliantly.  When he wandered down some obscure Downtown alley and found, say, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, when he used his taste-maker’s wand to deem Ms. Lunch important enough to write about, we took notice.  Wow, Lydia, way to go. Rockwell may only have one eye  but his good eye was sharp, his ears pricked, his mind open.  And the guy could write.  I would venture that in his own way, Rockwell was as important a player in our understanding that the Eno-Talking Heads nexus was of world-historical importance as, say, Clement Greenburg was in ensuring Jackson Pollack was taken seriously, or John Swarovski in getting us to understand the meaning of Stephen Shore’s arrival as a photographer.

When Robert Palmer ruled the roost, you had someone who as authentically could tell you about the Jelly Roll Kings playing in a Helena, Arkansas juke joint as he could review Bowie’s new phase.  He could wax passionately about Ornette Colman, The Rolling Stones, or Iggy Pop.  When he wrote, such was our respect that we stepped back to contemplate what he was saying, which sometimes became apparent on more than one level.

That was then. For the past twenty years, the Times has been Pareles-ized, its power diminished by the one-man wrecking ball known as Jon Pareles.  Pareles is the anti-Christgau.  Whereas everything Bob writes is well crafted, and when he offers one of his real raves, you have to give the artist well-earned props.  But Pareles is a truly horrible writer, a man who could render ecstasy on a stage into cardboard prose, filled with faux-learned music terms.  And I’m afraid he’s had the effect of ruining the writing of all around him.

Sure, we liked Ann Powers, and miss Kristine McKenna, and even Neal Strauss had his day.  But then recently, when we read Ben Ratliff pompously harumph about the Stones’ reissue, “I find Exile good, not great,” we realized: these days, the Times’ entire batch of rock critics produce irremediable mush.  Take Nate Chinen’s write-up today of the new Deer Tick album: “These are bright, durable songs, and Mr. McCauley liberates them from any telltale sign of artifice, whether he’s caressing them alone or roughing them up with his band mates, who manage a credible honkey-tonk snarl.”

Oh, puh-leeze.

Dear Mr. Chinen, and Mr. Ratliff, and your colleagues, too: you must leave the Times at once and not return Jon Pareles’ phone calls or email, if you have any prayer of rediscovering that rock’n’roll music is about passion, and feeling, and what moves the listener, not to mention the artist.

It is not to be studied in a dusty library.  It is about sweat, and gyrations, and occasionally about fearfully walking through back alleys, or into juke joints in Arkansas, on the off chance you’ll discover something that moves you.  Being a rock critic is not the same thing as being an actuary in an insurance company, no matter what Jon Pareles says.

Much has been written about the decline and fall of journalism.  It is genuinely sad to say that if you dropped the entire print run of the Times Arts and Leisure section off the Staten Island Ferry, the world of rock music would actually be a better place.

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