I admit it: It took me a good 10 years to “get” Chuck Eddy. Reading his early pieces, mostly in The Village Voice, where music editor and ultra-talent-scout Robert Christgau showcased Eddy’s idiosyncratic ardencies (Montgomery Gentry? White Wizzard?) and a prose style that was conversational if your idea of conversation was being hectored by a good-natured obsessive, I was stumped. Eddy defeated my pride in being able to ignore the taste of a critic as long as he or she wrote well. His aesthetic seemed random, if not willfully, showily perverse.
But eventually – through sheer quality; through sheer quantity (as a once and future freelancer myself, I admire a man who churns out well-wrought sentences by the ream) – Eddy won me over. How glad I am to see the publication of Eddy’s new song(s) of himself Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism (Duke University Press). Glad, first, because it’s truly a representative selection, tracing the slithery paths of Eddy’s enthusiasms from Marilyn Manson to Mindy McCready just to stick with the “M”s, with tart new intros that set up reprints of some of his greatest hits. And glad, second, that there exist publishers still willing to release anthologies of rock writing, since so much great rock criticism remains uncollected, neglected, less forgotten than never known to a wider audience. (Can we get a Tom Smucker book together, please? I’ll edit the damn thing myself.)
As Chuck Klosterman writes in his introduction, “When Chuck hears a pop song, it’s like he is the first person who has ever heard it.” Eddy’s greatest strength as a thinker about music is that he is never beholden to the received canon of great work, or the consensus of either mass taste or contemporary criticism. Just read his succinct summation of the critical appeal of Kurt Cobain: “Cobain came out of a subculture that puts a premium on stupid integrity, he was embraced by rock critics who put a premium on stupid integrity, and he didn’t want to disappoint them.” But Eddy’s also not merely ornery, predictably zigging where everyone else is zagging, just to get attention or preen about his independence. Indeed, Eddy is one of the least ostentatious first-rate music writers ever. He doesn’t mind admitting his ignorance in print as long as it serves to make a point about the music at hand: “If I’d cared about music back in ’76 instead of worrying about whether I’d get a varsity letter for my debate team experience, I probably wouldn’t be able to claim that Too Tough To Die is the first Ramones album that’s ever really mattered to me,” he begins one piece. I daresay no one in the history of Ramones-writing has ever set down anything but the true or feigned wisdom that Ramones (1976) and Rocket To Russia (1977), the band’s debut and third discs, contain the best Ramones music. Doesn’t matter to Eddy – he continues to build a fascinating, insightful argument about a band at a crossroads, or maybe at its end.
Eddy can make his ambivalence – hell, his basic confusion – about the importance of Jay-Z into as good a description of Jay-Z’s music as has been set down by any hardcore fan. I find his gradual move from heavy metal/noise enthusiast to pop/country aficionado, as it plays out over the course of this volume, both logical and exciting. Eddy’s achievement here is to make apparent artlessness artful; to make gut instinct work as a fully thought-through aesthetic. Other anthologies of music writing leave you wanting to race to hear the music being written about. Rock and Roll Always Forgets leaves me wanting to read more Chuck Eddy. And more, and more…