The Boston Phoenix
January 28 - February 4, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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True lies

A great history of pop things

The Led Zeppelin Story A few years ago, in what may have been his most profound, or at least his most lucid, moment as a pop critic, Butt-head offhandedly mentioned to his buddy Beavis that Edie Brickell was the "chick" who'd married "that African guy from the Beatles." Of course, Paul Simon, who is indeed married to Brickell, is neither African nor a former partner of Lennon & McCartney. And though Saturday Night Live once featured a skit in which Eddie (not Edie) Murphy claimed to be the "fifth Beatle," there weren't any Africans, Americans, or African-Americans among the Liverpool lads. But none of that stopped Butt-head's blatantly wrong description from seeming, well, so perfectly right -- from capturing everything that has come to be ridiculous both about Paul Simon's well-meant pan-culturalism (and that was before he'd bombed on Broadway with his Graceland Follies) and a culture industry dedicated to discovering all manner of Beatles minutia.

There's an art to getting things wrong in exactly the right way. Archie Bunker had it, Homer Simpson has it, and Beavis and Butt-head occasionally stumbled upon it. There's even a largely unexplored tradition of it in rock criticism. Some of Lester Bangs's best writing on music bordered on fiction, if not fantasy. And he passed the torch of erroneous illumination on to his pal Richard Meltzer, who included highly suspicious if not specious details in humorous yet somehow accurate concert previews (some of which can now be found on the Web at Addicted to Noise: But until a pair of -- for lack of a better term -- editorial cartoonists by the names of Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death (a/k/a Mekons frontguy Jon Langford) began publishing their satirical comic strip Great Pop Things roughly eight years ago (in New Music Express and the LA Weekly), no one in rock had specialized in disseminating accurate misinformation in the innocent guise of inaccurate information.

The works of Morton and Death have now been collected in the volume Great Pop Things: The Real History of Rock and Roll from Elvis to Oasis (Verse Chorus Press). It opens with an introduction by esteemed rock critic Greil Marcus -- which just in itself is funny when you realize that one of Marcus's missions over the years has been to document and correct inaccuracies in rock's historical record (see his Mystery Train and The Dustbin of History for numerous examples). Even the subtitle, The Real History of Rock and Roll from Elvis to Oasis, becomes a joke of sorts once you realize that by "real" Morton and Death mean something along the lines of "literally false but figuratively accurate" in much the same way that mythology serves humanity's need to comprehend its world through a shared past.

In Great Pop Things Jesus is the first punk-rocker; Leonardo da Vinci invents the compact disc; Elvis, who's sent to Germany because he's such a danger to the US, kills Hitler; the blues leaves the Delta and is shown, on a map no less, arriving in Winged Eel Finger Pie, UK; Jimi Hendrix issues a "Fuzzwah" against Cat Stevens; and Davey Jones changes his name to David Bowie when he's turned down by the Monkees because they've already got a Davey Jones, though he later gets the last laugh by landing a starring role in the film The Man Who Failed To Act. Dozens of names are changed in order to malign the guilty -- the Velvet Underground's John Cale becomes John Cage, Led Zep's bassist is renamed John Paul Sartre so that, as the band's house philosopher, he can tell Jimmy Page and Robert Plant that the occult is a sack of shit ("L'occultisme, c'est un grand sac de merde"), and Brian Eno is transformed into Brain Eno, the inventor of "ambivalent music," so called because "you can't quite tell if you are listening to it or not."

Although each of these vignettes was intended to stand on its own, they do form a cohesive, roughly chronological narrative. And if there's a running joke throughout this tour de farce, it's that every great pop entity aims to change the world. "He tried to change the world by setting various suggestions about how the world should be changed to music and singing them with an acoustical guitar" (Bob Dylan); "He tried to change the world with his teeth" (Jimi Hendrix); "He tried to change the world with this sort of square beardy thing in the middle of his chin" (Frank Zappa); and "They tried to change the world with their eyebrow music" (Oasis). It's the authors' way of parodying the culture industry's ability to reduce even the most complex artistic achievement to a simple catch-phrase epithet -- and also the tendency of fans and critics to exaggerate the importance of their favorite songs, albums, and artists. And as Marcus points out in the intro, it's an acknowledgment that some truths "can only be told as a slip, as a joke, as a mistake." I, for one, will always think of Paul Simon as "that African guy from the Beatles."

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