Finding pop music’s heart of darkness

Gilmore's sympathy for the devil matches Eddy's sympathy for a one-hit wonder.

The subtitle of longtime Rolling Stone writer Mikal Gilmore’s new collection, Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll, is especially appropriate. The book’s Cimmerian atmosphere comes from Gilmore’s aptitude for plumbing the depths of rock ‘n’ roll’s ebony heart. He lingers on the dark side of the street, seeing ghosts everywhere.

Night Beat

by Mikal Gilmore (Doubleday, $24.95)

The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll

by Chuck Eddy (Da Capo, $15.95)

Stairway to Hell: second edition

by Chuck Eddy (Da Capo, April 1998, $16.95)

In fact, Night Beat‘s final section is all obituaries—for everyone from Hank Williams to Dennis Wilson to Tupac Shakur—ending with Gilmore’s attempt to understand Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Visiting Cobain’s hometown, Aberdeen, Washington, a week after his death, Gilmore concludes that once darkness has entered you—in Cobain’s case, as a result of growing up an outcast in an outcast town—you can’t ever shake it; you can only, maybe, channel it to creative ends, claiming moments of happiness along the way. That’s what Gilmore, brother of executed murderer Gary Gilmore, has done. Growing up in an atmosphere of brutality and violence—chronicled in his award-winning memoir Shot in the Heart—Mikal Gilmore turned his own alienation into words about what he loved best: rock music, the last refuge of the disenfranchised and desolate. In the process of trying to understand the human beings behind the music he loves, Gilmore has created his own art.

Though he’s an astute critic, Gilmore excels at the thorny task of the artist profile. He has an unerring sense of his subject’s place in the larger culture, always offering incisive theories on the impetus behind his/her musical creation, even when he doesn’t have access to the musician (as with Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson—whom Gilmore once thought of as “an artist of immense talents and possibilities” and now sees as “a man of even more immense hubris and tragedy”) or when he/she proves to be an impossible interview (as with pianist Keith Jarrett, whose arrogance knows no bounds).

Gilmore also sees and encourages rock’s potential for political rebellion, and denounces self-appointed censors like Tipper Gore’s pet project, the Parents’ Music Resource Center. In keeping with his vehement anti-censorship stance, Gilmore’s tastes are hearteningly eclectic. Here’s a man who’s fascinated by punk—since 1977 he’s written more on that genre than on any other, and he notes that “there was no single movement in popular (or in this case, semipopular, even unpopular) music that I cared or argued more about”—yet who also writes thoughtful appreciations of the Allman Brothers and Jerry Garcia, musicians whose aesthetics couldn’t be more opposed to punk’s unruliness. In the Allmans he sees a haunted modern update of the blues; in Garcia, the creator of a close community that many musical subcultures (including punk) have tried, with lesser success, to build.

But even while Gilmore is asserting pop music’s life-affirming qualities, he finds the darkness within—or the darkness finds him. Most of the music he’s interested in was made by people whose bright popularity, wealth, and/or critical acclaim is dappled with personal crises or artistic disappointments, often brought on by human appetites run amok. Gilmore knows that sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll isn’t always a happy equation.

Like Gilmore, Chuck Eddy is a middle-aged white male rock writer, but Eddy’s perspective on rock ‘n’ roll couldn’t be more different. While Gilmore focuses on the rock musician as artistic icon, attempting to reconcile the person with the artist, Eddy’s interest is the listener. In his resolutely contrarian Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Misguided Tour Through Popular Music, and in the upcoming revised edition of his classic Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe, Eddy proves himself to be a consummate fan of—and skilled apologist for—”party” music, one-hit wonders, and singles that other critics would label throwaways. Where Gilmore writes about Van Halen with a faint hint of condescension (probably because he has to hang around backstage and talk to them), Eddy sees them as just part of a continuum from the Byrds to Mudhoney.

Eddy’s “tour” through rock history contains exhaustive lists—lists of “rock groups Waiting For The End of The World,” and “car songs that sound like cars” (the Presidents of the USA’s “Mach 5” makes the cut). He revels in any opportunity to diss a critically acclaimed record, as when he describes his unwitting first encounter with trip-hop sensation Tricky: “The song just kept going on and on, forever, and it just kept getting worse…. It’s still the only Tricky track I’ve heard, and I don’t intend to find out how typical it is.”

Rather than examining popular music in the context of social and artistic developments, Eddy constructs his own universe, a place where Boney M warrants more space than James Brown, and both are overshadowed by Def Leppard. Armed with a sense of humor and the ultimate anti-authoritarian attitude, Eddy’s love for music blazes in every sentence, and in each unexpected connection he makes. Nothing is sacred to him—including himself, as he points out in his list of “Big Sellouts”: “For the right price, I’ll write like the most vacant hack on earth.” With his crazy logic, Eddy might consider that title a compliment, but fortunately for music fans, he falls far short of earning it.