Rock-Write From the Vault: Joe Carducci--Heresy Engraved On The Rock Of The Electric Church
When I was on tour in '02 with my old band Roadside Monument (we did a reunion of sorts after a 4 year hiatus), I read a book my buddy Chris Estey lent me called Rock and the Pop Narcotic by Joe Carducci. Carducci helped run the seminal punk label SST in the eighties when Black Flag was most active. Carducci's take on punk, the rock aesthetic (vs the pop aesthetic), and how rock had been commodified by big business and FM radio made for a really interesting read. Some of the references in this piece may be a bit dated, but Carducci has been blogging for a couple years at The New Vulgate, a wickedly smart blog on SST era rock, his take on politics, and a bit of photography.
I did a write-up on Carducci and Rock and the Pop Narcotic for Bandoppler Magazine back in '03 or so. Here it is. Oh, and Chris Estey was my editor on the piece, and also helped with the interview. Artwork by Heidi Alayne.
You know him. Joe Carducci is the guy at your crummy job who’s been there for ten years longer than anyone else, and no one knows why he stays. He sits in the corner at lunchtime with a really big book while the other employees fraternize. But they don’t dare pick on him, or even make conversation with him, they just nod their heads to him solemnly when he walks in the room. He’s the average guy who works really hard, never complains about the job, and keeps to himself. But when the new guy inevitably asks for his opinion at break time, everyone feels bad for the kid, because he is about to feel stupid. For the uninitiated, Joe Carducci helped run SST Records in the mid-80s with Greg Ginn of Black Flag after some time at record distribution outfit Systematic. (Systematic helped bring lots of cool imports into the States and inspired the domestic independent scene.) Carducci currently plans on finally reprinting his influential, critically-acclaimed, only-available-on-eBay-for-big-bucks work of rock criticism, Rock and the Pop Narcotic, along with some of his screenplays to get back in business.
“I could get somebody else to put it out,” he explains, “but I have these other things to do, so I figured I’m doomed to self-publish, and leverage the one for the others.”
If his current work is as fresh and challenging as Narcotic was when it captured the last big rock scene in the early-mid 90s, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for.
Due to Carducci’s years of experience and insight learned from the margins of the music business, the fat five hundred odd pages of Narcotic are a caustic politically incorrect blast of unpopular smart ass diatribes that expose over-educated pseudo-liberals with whitey guilt complexes to rants against the music press, via Greil Marcus and his peers, to the red-necked breeding grounds of real rock itself. Here’s an example:
It is not my problem that “intellectual” fashions borrowed from university semioticians and the Situationists before them reveal less than Tiger Beat about rock music. If you frame your case by ignoring the spiritual for the social you will miss the essence of your study. You will, however, open up a greater theater of broken bits of out of context reality which can be played with cleverly and endlessly to an audience of other so inclined brain-locked psychopathic big men who never left campus. (Narcotic)
“I spent four years basically on the first edition of Narcotic, and no one in their right mind does that,” Carducci recalls. “I’d bought a building in Chicago and worked on it for nine months. No writer, like this Jim DeRogatis, is cranking out books. Any daily music writer [like him], they don’t have time to do what I did.
“The PR concern of all of these publications is just overwhelming,” he laments. “They won’t let you write unless it’s hinged to a new product.
“There were no publicists before [in the independent music scene]. The bands didn’t have managers. All that [enforced] professionalism of the underground does is make it impossible to communicate anything. It’s parallel, I guess, to what happened to the majors in the 70s. Also added to it are all these people I assume came out of colleges, which had some sort of rock and roll course. And they interned at a hip magazine, or you know, a radio station or something. So, to them, they have a ‘media job,’ not an ‘arts job,’ and the media is completely different.”
Carducci recalls a story about a Portland, Oregon based punk band called the Neo-Boys. Their original guitar player, Jennifer, was a very conceptual type interested in bands like the Velvet Underground who held to a Warholian aesthetic sensibility. In a local weekly paper, Jennifer summed up what the punk scene meant to them as saying “we’re fans of the media.”
“A lot of people misunderstood what she meant,” Carducci says. “I take it as a very telling critique of why such a low percentage of the music underground really cares about music, or knows anything about it. It’s just the nature of it. It’s a social game mostly, and then fans of the media now are a little bit different from someone who is interested in painting or music or film.
“The media, it’s sort of like this conveyer belt. It’s nothing to be a fan of, really. It's what’s new in the culture, so it’s [just] interesting,” he explains. “There’s fascination with the film, television, and radio business that has very little to do with the product that those media are delivering.”
I didn’t necessarily think that Sonic Youth was a good [band to] sign at the beginning, partly because they weren’t together as a band.
In Narcotic, Carducci comedically chides the Greil Marcus school of intelligentsia rock criticism, the old hippies that have all written endless volumes of impressive sociopolitical intellectual muscle flexing. And some of it may even be good, interesting reading, but it’s probably more appropriate for the University classroom. And it doesn’t help in the encouragement of good rock writing, or for that matter—good rock and roll.
The immediate visceral quality—the guts of the actual rock aesthetic—says Carducci, gets lost amongst the politics and music focused writing is replaced by a romanticized, intellectual sentimentalism where the musicians are unwittingly set on pedestals as genius songwriting icons and avant-garde leaders for the New Revolution. This reflects the liberal bourgeois tastes of the writers themselves.
Bloated intellectualism aside, it’s clear that punk brought (if only for a few moments) The Rock back at a crucial time in the 70s when the music started getting overproduced and slick.
In essence, the rock music after … punk … had everything in common with the rock music before it. What makes this fact less than evident is the primacy of the pop language in discussions of rock music. Strip away pop’s concern with vocals (lyrics), dress, attitude, image, production and arrangement and you can see in ‘punk rock’ a music that is simply refocused and so more aggressively itself. (Narcotic)
In short, the rock aesthetic itself is nearing extinction.
While reading Narcotic, one gets the feeling as though Carducci has compiled a collection of late night bitching sessions between jaded scene and armchair philosophy buddy types, edited the conversations with juxtaposed analysis and jargon from other fields (film, for example), made up a few amusing dictionary-ish words of his own along the way, and made liberal use of the word “fag.”
As Carducci explained on furious.com, “I wrote it more from the Los Angeles scene perspective, because Los Angeles was notably less political and wilder and freer in scatology, or whatever you want to say is the impolite, or impolitic approach of surfer and hardcore kids and LA generally.”
Rock, says Carducci, “is rock and roll made conscious of itself as a small band music”—it is a performed music between a couple people that actually practice together and play live to audiences. The rock phenomenon, according to Carducci, rarely happens outside the context of bands that are true collectives. Conversely, leader-backup type outfits generally spell the kiss of death to the rock band.
Other particular themes in Narcotic that stand out include a thorough post-war WWII sociological treatment of white American suburbia as the essential breeding grounds of rock.
“I think the way it really happened was, once the music left the south, where it was pretty much the product of black gospel, and white gospel, black blues, and white country, what you’d see next is Johnny and the Hurricanes from Cleveland, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Wailers, and Dick Dale and His Deltones,” Carducci says.
“So in the late 50s you get these sort of barely middle class [bands]—middle class enough to have instruments around the house—but they’re really a blue collar phenomenon, and so they tended to do instrumental music,” he continues. “Because they were middle class enough to be bad at singing, they didn’t come from a singing culture in the church they went to. So, then you get an instrumental-based music.”
Carducci says that “rock” was different than 50s rock and roll, and most definitely set apart from Tin Pan Alley patterned, frontman, vocal oriented pop. There’s no doubt rock and roll was new to the pop culture landscape of the early to mid-50s, but there was show business baggage that came with it. Rock and roll started as a single personality music form, just like the Frank Sinatras, Tony Bennetts, Perry Comos, and Nat King Coles that preceded it. Following in the footsteps of the pop formula, an expendable band made up of “professionals” was likely recruited to support the star frontman. In an environment like this, the hired hands were probably learning their parts from a written medium. There wouldn’t have been much time to learn how to gel with the rest of the band, considering that after a few gigs the bassist or drummer was replaced with a new guy.
Though this approach is a little different in contemporary times, it’s this easy money-making oriented approach, says Carducci, that ends up sneaking into the process of how big record companies “groom” promising rock bands.
Talent managers and record labels make their decisions to get involved with an artist based on evaluation of his material, drive, and visuals first, his execution secondarily. Frequently in the case of a band it is the singer alone that is judged. The band can always be replaced, in their minds. (Narcotic)
One particular distinctive of the rock form is that it has a completely different consciousness and identity. Where the focus of attention in early rock and roll and pop forms was centered on a specific individual, the rock identity is about the band itself. This orientation was crucial to the rock and roll metamorphosis. And naturally, this metamorphosis has cultural implications historically as well.
“With all of these colleges’ effect on the music industry it’s also affected the music itself,” Carducci elaborates. “So, you can sort of say that these little jumps in the timeline … the Beatles and Dylan both inspired wealthier, better-educated kids, that the music might be worthy of their interests. So, you get people higher than the middle class starting bands, or doing stuff with music, that they would have just rejected outright. And then before you know it, you’re in the upper middle class and upper class with different people [involved]. Comparing them to the people at Sun Records, or all of those crazy rockabillies that get compiled, there just isn’t the direct, hard-wired, musical, psychic product. [Instead] it’s all conceptual.”
Put another way, maybe the Limey loving collegiate types of the 60s needed the Brits to re-sell them music that was more palatable than what was playing down at the redneck bar. Maybe the upper classes needed music with sophistication, esoteric eastern mysticism, and progressive politics so that the music itself could be legitimized intellectually, fashionably, or otherwise. In short, there was need of a “concept” to be attached to the music, so it was easily identified and defined. After all, everybody needs pop culture heroes to look up to—icons to consult for issues associated with gender equality, sexuality, fashion tips, or hip revolutionary bumper sticker slogans. In contexts like this, music becomes a utility for the all important “message” or “image.” As a consequence, the music quality suffers because of the peripheral clutter.
As a contemporary example of unnecessary baggage of conceptual qualities, Carducci recalls the story of when Sonic Youth was signed to SST in the 80s. “I liked ’em good enough from Bad Moon Rising on,” Carducci states. “I think they’re best now, because I think there used to be something contrived about their experimentalism. I didn’t necessarily think that Sonic Youth was a good [band to] sign at the beginning, partly because they weren’t together as a band. I think they got interested in the SST bands, changed drummers, and got to be a coherent musical project instead of just a concept.”
The opposite of this pretension could possibly be described by what Carducci coined as The New Redneck, a term he used to describe California’s South Bay bands—the Minutemen, Black Flag and the Descendants.
“I thought you could kind of generalize and say that they weren’t concerned with how they looked,” Carducci comments, “or whether there was anybody out there who would be interested. They got to be inspired by each other. In the South Bay there’s just a mix of middle and lower class—more Hispanics, black, and Asians—and the beach has kind of a surf culture continuum ... that’s always kind of a bohemian thing that’s around that’s not too pretentious.
“Working their own music [out] together through their personality quirks and their frustrations meant that [the South Bay bands] weren’t doing their bands the way people were doing [things] up in Hollywood—where they were trying to learn parts and fit the parts together in a kind of visual theme that would go with a concept of a band. The [Hollywood bands] would look and move a certain way, and all of this crap.”
The reason I pulled away from politics as a prism to see the world is because I wanted to be a good writer of screenplays. I wanted to write real characters, and not just one, and then have cardboard cutouts for him to knock down.
All of Carducci’s considerations and perspectives open a can of worms. There are practical implications. One of them being, how does one truly capture the energy of an actual performance? How does one get the spiritual/visceral nature of The Rock across to a marketplace and attention deficit audience trained on ear candy?
Unfortunately, in reality, you can’t. The best a band can hope for in a sterile, scientific experiment type setting like the studio is to document a musical moment that is an approximation of a true performance in a less than natural setting.
Capturing that potentially transcendental element of The Musical Moment on to wax is no small task, and more often than not the tools meant to enhance the listening experience tend to get in the way. As technology has developed, there are all kinds of ways to get around the rough edges of a less than perfect performance. It’s not that rock should be played poorly or engineered sloppily to be truly authentic. It's that the momentum that makes rock rock often gets stripped in the technological process.
Instead of the technology serving as a tool of documenting the combustion (the rock) of musical moments, musicians follow the lead of the efficiency of the technology. Why focus on the performance when you can just fix it in the mix?
“Well, what if by doing that you do get it perfect? That’s not so good,” Carducci comments. “If it’s perfect, then it’s not really breathing. You know, [at SST] we had to patch a couple of notes that D. Boon (of the Minutemen) couldn’t hit. One of the songs on Project Mersh—I don’t even remember what it was—it was just a high note that he couldn’t hit. And you know, that kind of patch doesn’t really matter.”
Computer generated tempo perfection or tape measurements and splicing between kick and snare hits are frequently imposed in today’s studio, as well. (Or worse, the preposterous Death Cab For Cutie approach of recording all instrumentation to a metronome before drum tracks are laid down!) What essentially happens in such a situation is the surgical mutilation of the actual feel of the music itself. No offense to Steve Albini, in relation to Big Black using drum machines, but drum trigger synthesizers (or drum machines) are unable to synthesize the “breathing” in the real sound of a real drummer recorded on real drums.
It’s the purposeful imprecision of the bassist and the guitarist as the three of them chase down a song-ritual’s particular spirit incarnation that excites the listener. (Narcotic)
Drums are meant to find their traction in the subtle tempo fluctuations and tension in the push and pull between the bass, guitar, and overdrive.
“Part of the problem with the metronome is that you’re not listening to the music, you’re replicating it,” Carducci says, “and that’s the Catch-22. You want to play together and sing as perfectly in sync as you can, but at a certain point it pays less dividends—accuracy, perfect accuracy.
“The real purists say that anything after 1930 was recorded by musicians who were influenced more by recording than live music,” Carducci asserts. “So they say, ‘Well, that’s not real American music anymore after 1930.’ In the 20s, you have people who just happened to be in front of a microphone that somebody put there, they really played music because their family played music, and they got an instrument by happenstance, or a lot of them were obsessed and would put strings on a cardboard box, you know, until they could afford a real ukulele.”
Every era has had issues of their own threatening to diminish musical authenticity. Historically, there were unions that were actually angry that technology was affording the opportunity for music to become record-able and broadcast out in the first place. They felt that music wasn’t meant to be wallpaper. Music isn’t to be ignored as background. Take away live performances and you take away the music’s ability to truly engage an audience. And—how are we going to get paid? (For further reading on the history of recorded and broadcasted music refer to Joseph Lanza’s book Elevator Music.)
For “the fanatics” concerned with hearing honest music performed by genuinely engaged players that transcends the barriers of mere precision in musicianship, or easily categorized utilitarian sloganeering, there’s still something substantial to consider: Where’s The Rock in our day?
If the pop market is no longer hospitable to the great rock bands of the day, then what? Do we actually prescribe sell-out to pop methodology in order to “save” rock? Do we advocate submission to the pop producer and his imposition of computerized drum programs? And if rock gets recorded—immortalized—without a real rhythm section sweating it out in real time does the music die frozen in the digital ice age? Or can the live performance aspect alone keep rock music breathing? (Narcotic)
Aside from trying to get Narcotic back in print, Carducci has kept himself busy over the years working with the Owned & Operated label, along with Black Flag/ALL’s Bill Stevenson.
“Wretch Like Me was our workhorse,” Carducci admits, “[but] they threw in the towel after some band members changing. Their guitar player had brain cancer and survived, and there was other stuff going on. They’re still around, with members from Tanger, but at the moment there’s nothing going on.”
Aside from Carducci’s continued work with independent music, he also started a film company called Provisional in Laramie, Wyoming. But plans to build up distribution came to a halt when “we didn’t want to make the jump to DVD. I wasn’t committed to doing that myself, on that level. I’m mostly a writer, so I’m focusing on that."
As for criticism, “Well, I have a film book, I still have to write that,” he says. “It’s about actors. There’s kind of an interesting review of the new [Clint] Eastwood movie in The New York Review of Books, and it says a few things about his acting style that a few people kind of forget, but he says it fairly well. [What it says is] there’s a film style of acting, and there’s a theatrical style of acting. [In] the previous issue of Arthur (an arts journal Carducci frequently writes for) I had an article on [Charles] Bronson, who had just died, and I’d done all of this research, threw it all together.”
At first glance, Carducci’s perspective on film may not appear to be directly related to his involvement with music, but his insight into the media’s current soulless environment in general is telling. Unlike most other media criticism, he deals with the spiritual and philosophical as an intrinsic factor to all good art. The mainstream of rock criticism as a whole, or film for that matter, has continuously failed at truly understanding un-biased, practical, cultural developments.
“The reason I pulled away from politics as a prism to see the world,” Carducci says, “is because I wanted to be a good writer of screenplays. I wanted to write real characters, and not just one, and then have cardboard cutouts for him to knock down. That’s a certain kind of action movie, it’s also a certain kind of sophisticated movie. You know, where characters are props for the hero, who’s got a very negative, nihilistic, corrosive sense of humor. And it’s very sophisticated, and might be very funny, but it’s not masterful art, because it’s not humane.
“So you know, the quote from my childhood that echoes through my head all the time, echoing from my mom on one hand and the nuns on the other, was, ‘You don’t have to like everybody, but you have to love them.’ And you have to love people to write characters, otherwise you’re just trapped in politics, and you’re bitter and resentful and you're not in control of your ego.”