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The Accidental Evolution of
“If I tried hard enough, I could probably convince myself that any old tripe is terrific,” Chuck Eddy confesses a third of the way through his second book, The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He’s being a little facetious, but anyone even a little familiar with his work in publications like the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and the late-’80s Creem will recognize him as the rock critic most likely to embrace sounds on the fringe of typical rock-crit concerns, and the one who might damn large parts of the canon in favor of schlock like Will to Power, of “Baby I Love Your Way/Free Bird” medley fame. You never know what he’s going to like, and for what reasons. Eddy’s stance might most effectively be boiled down to a line from his review of the Have a Nice Day collections of ’70s AM-radio hits, tunes he hosanna’d as “our roots.” Or the fact that Accidental Evolution was originally to be called Pour “Sugar, Sugar” on Me and to examine pop history through the prism of Def Leppard’s megaselling Hysteria.
Even after trimming that conceit in the wake of Lep’s commercial slide, Eddy’s “misguided tour” still holds a lot, from Charley Patton and Robert Johnson (the latter of whom, predictably, he doesn’t care much for) to Eurodisco and The History of the House Sound of Chicago. If criticism is on one level a game, Eddy plays it his way, scampering up and down the field with the ball. As in his 1991 Stairway to Hell, which celebrated “heavy metal” albums by everyone from Guns N’ Roses to Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Jimmy Castor Bunch, he fills Accidental Evolution with surprise connectionsso many of them, in fact, that the book sometimes gets lost in its own amok-running. Like Richard Meltzer (who contributes a blurb to the back cover) in his seminal Aesthetics of Rock, our guide revels in grabbing hold of a song or album title and spewing all the connections his mind and record collection will allow. This playful approach often succeeds, but occasionally it falls flat, particularly when Eddy seems compelled to fill many of the book’s last chapters with list after list of “underground rock” (“Don’t Sleep in the Subway”), “rocket rock,” and too many more.
While free-associating, Eddy tosses in plenty of one-liners, many of which hit their marks, even if you’re disagreeing while you’re laughing. (On Laurie Anderson: “If ‘Language is a Virus,’ shouldn’t she cover her mouth?” On baseball: “Ricky Ricardo’s mambo classic ‘Bob Alou’ was a sonic predecessor of Matty, Jesus and Felipe…”) In support of such tomfoolery, he enlists the likes of Bon Scott, whose supposition (in AC/DC’s “Let There Be Rock”) that Tchaikovsky invented guitars as well as rock itself seems to dazzle even the author into silence for a moment.
Eddy’s real points, though, have to do with things like how pop works coming out of regular people’s stereos (you know, that vast audience that, in a clichéd if true observation, pays for its records, as opposed to critics, who get into this racket for the money, ha ha). To Eddy’s mind, it’s good that the Seattle explosion led to what Spin called “scrunge”cynically calculating bands like Candlebox riding the alterna-waves to (brief) fame and fortune. After all, as he points out, they’re the natural spawn of the hair bands that major labels spewed in the wake of Mötley Crüe and Poison, and he loves those.
Eddy makes predictable noises about how too much rock criticism is wrong for not valuing the joys of Expose over those of Pavement, not allowing the possibility that some of us might appreciate both. But when it comes to some of his sacred cow-killing, it’s hard not to agree: for instance, when he takes on the leaden, humorless Rage Against the Machine for making “clumsy, sexless pogo-funk crud.” And even one of his anti-Pavement slams is pretty funny, positing their “early Burger-King-drive-through-loudspeaker imitations” as better than their later, cleaner stuff. My ears say he’s wrong to prefer the likes of Sponge, who fit tidily into his teenage-über-alles hard-rock theory, but then, that’s why we all have our own ears. And occasionally, ears (or brains) don’t have anything to do with it, as when he disses Miles Davis for not being Isaac Hayes. Or something. His willfulness also gets in the way when acknowledging his “problem” with George Clinton’s creations, which he’s praised extravagantly, and rightfully, in the past.
At the same time, the iconoclastic Eddy gives a lot more ground to the usual critically acclaimed suspects than he has in the past, though he manages to do so in typically idiosyncratic ways. He smartly links Beatles sound-collages like “Strawberry Fields Forever” with hiphop, ropes Dylan’s electric work in as proof of his “selling out is a virtue” rule, and lets up on Kurt Cobain long enough to express some empathy based on his own father’s suicide, a real leap for such a natural wise-ass.
But as much as he admires “Positively 4th Street” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Eddy is really celebrating the joys of buyingand listening toevery interesting-looking record from the dollar bin; he even knows what song follows “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” on ’70s country star Donna Fargo’s first album. Whether or not you believe the cases he makes for all these junk-pile finds, it’s hard to deny that some of them sound irresistible. You could say that his insistence on stacking everything he likes on the same heap reduces the musicbut in the end, Eddy convinces you that he’s in it for more than just the noise the whole thing makes when it topples over.CP