May 2nd, 2012
Way back in the 80s, while most of us were blasting Tone Loc on the way to orthodontist appointments, a tight-knit cadre of social misfits was toiling seven days a week and sleeping a few winks each night on the floor of a rundown office in Southern California. Their charge: to market and distribute the music of genre-defining and -bending acts like Black Flag, Saint Vitus, Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. Just about any longhair that picks up a guitar is channeling the spirit of SST Records, whether he knows it or not. Elder statesmen of the bunch, Joe Carducci sheds none of SST’s caustic ambition in his writing, notably in 1991’s Rock & The Pop Narcotic, a hefty volume of rock cheerleading and industry criticism from a guy who’s had plenty of time to contemplate his subject. His new one, Life Against Dementia, collects writing previously seen in Arthur magazine, the Match!, and The New Vulgate and covers subjects as varied as the Meat Puppets, Warren Oates and Hillary Clinton.
Tell us about the title, Life Against Dementia.
It references and updates Norman O. Brown’s 1959 book Life Against Death, which was one of the books that set off the sixties. His cultural doom-mongering centered on sexual frustration, whereas 50 years later we stand on the other side of the sexual revolution and we’re still mainlining doom, so it seemed like NOB’s thesis needed reworking. Also medical science is ameliorating Death, if not solving it outright, and so the aged, especially the coming baby boom gerontocracy, will be effecting culture in unprecedented ways. The kids may well be fucked.
Fucked, sure. But how?
Well, you can maybe see and hear an acceptance of their place, youth culture’s place, vis-a-vis the continued dominance of American music by geriatric boomers or even the younger retro-styled stars or similarly retro-styled so-called alternatives. The punk era attempts failed, but they at least tried to take over. There’s plenty of talent today, but there was plenty of talent in Toto, too. Just no ambition beyond business.
Tell us once and for all: what makes a great rock band?
It’s best to have minimal instrumentation, guitar-bass-drums-voice, so that the listener can hear the four voices interact. The best bands are listening to each other and responding with a living push-pull dynamic as they go. If its rote replication it may be efficient pop but it will be lacking in musicality. Rock and roll is the jazz fire penned into the ballad form, said imprisonment stokes that fire.
What does it take for some guys with guitars to form a band and make it big these days?
I just listened to an improv rock album by Group Icky Rats that the band sent me, which is very good and very rough, and I had to tell them that whenever I hear a great band these days I feel sorry for them. I’m not sure how anyone sells music the way we used to. It helps to be a duo like White Stripes or Black Keys because it trims the politics of being broke and doing it anyway, though it cuts down a full dimension of the music. But that reductionism probably helps reach through a dumb media’s audiences. Other than that, practice a lot and don’t forget to work on writing and arranging of the tunes.
Rock & the Pop Narcotic puts a lot of emphasis on pushing music into the mainstream. Do you feel a certain satisfaction from the success of ex-SST acts like Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, & Henry Rollins?
I do think that the Rollins Band’s performance at the Grammy’s back in mid-nineties was a signal moment–he was up there dealing “Liar” to the rock royalty in the best seats. But in the punk era pretty much everyone’s career was backwards. That is, you only had a chance at a career if you managed to last longer than 10 years. By then most bands’ fires have gone out and they are at best seasoned professionals. In particular in LAD I mention the five songs recorded by the Meat Puppets that managed to catch their early lightning in a bottle, and those were all recorded by late 1981, years before what are considered their classic albums. Those are great, but I’m talking the primo shit.
[““In a Car” off the first 45, “H-Elenore” from the “Keats Rides a Harley” compilation, and “Walking Boss,” “Mel- ons Rising,” and “Saturday Morning” off the first album. Those tunes are live-in-studio!” from Life Against Dementia, p. 199]
How would things have been different if you had had control of the reigns at SST?
Well, Greg and Chuck actually wanted to give Mugger and myself the label in 1984 if we’d help them set up a Black Flag label. But I wanted to work on Black Flag records since the other bands weren’t as dedicated and I was more interested in making something happen than a career in the record business. I think maybe that really surprised them. Mugger stayed on for a few years and basically said all they had to do was keep titles in print and pay out royalties owed and they’d have made more money. It wasn’t an easy business, but perhaps routinizing the label functions and having other bands depend on SST was too boring for Greg.
In the back pages of Rock & the Pop Narcotic there’s a section titled the “Psychozoic Hymnal.” It’s basically a long list of notable rock bands dating from the dawn of rock and roll until the time it was written. There doesn’t seem to be a single band from Philadelphia mentioned. What’s the story there?
One thing I noticed while writing R&TPN was that in some periods it didn’t seem to matter where a band was from. It seemed very important in the punk era of small label localism so there is more identification of cities in those decades of the Psychozoic Hymnal than in the earlier decades. I think cities are normally the providers of audiences and money for rock and roll. Los Angeles is the exception because it’s so new and suburban-like yet so massive that you get what Chester Himes referred to as “the countriest city.” And rock and roll is, like C&W and R&B and Gospel and Jazz, rural in origin and barely survives into a second generation in the city. Philadelphia is represented in R&TPN at least by Pure Hell, and Third St. Jazz record shop, which was one of our biggest accounts when I was at Systematic, before SST, and trying to sell the best records out there. I imagine Bill Haley was a Philadelphia fixture as he toured his home state in the early fifties doing country swing for five years before it all became rock and roll. There wasn’t anything that good that early outside of Memphis methinks.
Joe Carducci reads from Life Against Dementia, Wed., May 2, 7pm, Brickbat Books, 709 S. Fourth St. 215.592.1207. brickbatbooks.blogspot.com