"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The great rock & roll swindle

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Never Mind the Pollacks

By Neal Pollack

Harper Collins,

259 pp, 23.95 dollars

Fresh from the satirical triumph of his first book The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, "America's Greatest Living Writer" Neal Pollack has set his sights on rock 'n' roll and the molehills-into-mountains pretentiousness of rock journalism.

As in Anthology, the author put himself at the center of the action. As a character, Neal Pollack is the bastard son of rock critic Lester Bangs and Forrest Gump and God's gift to music journalism.

He towers above the kingdom of rock criticism, which is clearly more important than the mere music itself, like an Ozzy-mandias. Women lust after him, men want to be him and there is no cough syrup so narcotic-laden that he won't quaff it with abandon.

Pollack's rock 'n' roll novel opens with august rock journalist Paul St. Pierre receiving the news of Pollack's death.

"He was, in many ways, the living, breathing essence of America's music, its dark Baudelaire Rimbaud genius, its Celine, its Brecht, the long crawl from the swamps of Louisiana to the halls of Dadaism and back again, writing with prejudice, but without mercy. At least I hadn't heard it first from Kurt Loder."

In a metafictive effort to chronicle Pollack the critic's life, St. Pierre traces the history of rock 'n' roll and Pollack's effect on it.

Not surprisingly St. Pierre discovers Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Bruce Springsteen, the Sex Pistols, and Kurt Cobain owe their careers to the influential and highly intoxicated critic, who in turn owes his staggering insight into popular music to his mentor, the shadowy bluesman and inventor of funk and hip-hop Clambone Jefferson.

The young Norbert Pollackovitz first hears Jefferson singing the blues on the streets of Chicago and again after moving to Memphis, Tenn., where he writes a song for next door neighbor Elvis Presley's first recording session at Sun Studios.

A few months after running over and killing young Norbert's authoritarian anti-music father, Elvis renames him Neal Pollack while performing at the young boy critic's 1954 bar mitzvah.

As the novel whizzes along we see Pollack stealing Joan Baez from the arms of Bob Dylan; Pollack introducing Lou Reed to heroin and Andy Warhol; Pollack turning suburban teenager James Osterberg into the force of nature that is Iggy Pop; Pollack seducing Patti Smith; Pollack working as an amnesiac roadie for Bruce Springsteen; Pollack as Smoky, the fifth Ramone; Pollack starting the Sex Pistols; Pollack educating the Minutemen; Pollack adopting a teenaged Kurt Cobain and introducing him to an unnamed-for-legal reasons soon to be widowed future wife; and especially Pollack stealing no fewer than three of St. Pierre's wives.

The history of U.S. rock music is all about Pollack and what he learns from the occasionally surfacing Clambone Jefferson.

While Pollack's constantly self-referential fantasy life can be a bit wearing at times, the writing is smart, funny and sharp edged as he punctures the high-falutin' pompous pseudointellectual pronouncements of rock writers.

The highlight of Never Mind the Pollacks has to be the Rutles-like song-genre parodies that Pollack manages to work in. The Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" becomes "My Vein." Bob Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol" get mixed together into "The Ballad of Emmett O'Donnell."

Pollack's Bruce Springsteen pastiche "Jenny in the Car, 1972" manages to work blue jeans, America, closed factories, New Jersey, highways, sex, the Bible and highways into a three verse song.

His punk/funk send up of the Minutemen ("How can you have a girl when there's a war in Nicaragua? Who's your president, Ronald Reagan or Che Guevara?) could almost pass for the real thing.

Some would argue that Pollack is a one-trick pony, only able to do self-aggrandizing satirical hatchet jobs on the careers of his betters.

That remains to be seen, but by his flamethrower barbecuing of sacred cows, he raises the vital question of whether such people should be considered anyone's betters.

Rock critics such as Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus who seek to elevate rock music to some sort of philosophical, metaphysical analysis of Western culture should beware.

After all, it's only rock 'n' roll and Neal Pollack likes it