Curse you, rock critics, for all your bastard progeny, for every would-be young Bangs cum Kerouacs, for every would-be dharma bum who ever put his inchoate musical thoughts to paper. It’s all of you that we have to blame for every callow, untried youth who feels compelled to insert himself into his “rock” narrative, for all the self-important, overblown rock writing found in every alt-weekly and zine across America.
As if in response to the legacy of critics who became stars in their own right–Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Greil Marcus, et al–satirist Neal Pollack’s debut novel, Never Mind the Pollacks, is a merciless account of a fictionalized rock critic/anti-hero (named Neal Pollack–the balls!) who somehow manages to insinuate his greasy, rock-savant ass into every nascent scene and musical happening since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. The character of Pollack, loosely modeled on Lester Bangs, is a Romilar-swilling, unwashed lout who is a key participant as well as chronicler of rock’s evolution, starting with his exposure to a shaman-esque Chicago bluesman named Clambone, up through the ascent of current critics’ darlings The Strokes.
Never Mind the Pollacks is told through the eyes of Pollack’s contemporary Paul St. Pierre, a less-venerated critic who’s lingered, seething, in his shadow for years. After Pollack’s death, Pierre becomes consumed with researching and compiling a legacy to his rival, whom he describes as “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 without prejudice, but without mercy.”
The book contains a daunting number of allusions to “moments” in rock history, and the author parodies not just the subject, but the writing styles of well-known rock scribes.
Also included are original lyrics to more than 20 songs. Which brings us to the eponymously titled album–12 original songs influenced by artists in the book: There’s a Lou Reed track, a Ramones track, a Pistols track, and so on as recorded by the Neal Pollack Invasion, a rock band fronted by Pollack in the role of neophyte punk vocalist.
So what inspired a former Chicago Reader political columnist and McSweeney’s contributor–a guy known as much for his scathing political blog (www.nealpollack.com) as his send-up of magazine feature writing, cheekily titled The Neal Pollack Anthology of Literature–to take on the rock press? Simple answer: The rock press takes itself entirely too seriously.
“Music writing was so self-absorbed–and it continues to be,” says the real Neal Pollack, during a recent phone chat from his Austin, TX home. “It’s very influential and you can see its influence in on-line publications and especially at alternative weeklies. It was a very lively world and it was ripe for writing about.”
“It’s not a history of rock and roll; it’s a parody of a rock biography and of rock criticism.”
Pollack admits that his own musical tastes were “horrible.” “I didn’t know it at the time, but the ’80s were a great time for rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “It was the decade of the indie-rock revolution. I listened to Huey Lewis and the News and Billy Joel; I thought ‘Addicted to Love’ was a rockin’ song,” he says, laughing. “I had one friend who was into the Velvet Underground. So I had a couple of VU albums among my Billy Joel Live in Russia and Sting’s Dream of The Blue Turtle albums.”
Pollack admits that he started at point zero with his new book. “I had a lot of help from real rock critics in writing the book. I really went deep. I had to.”
He started with Legs McNeil’s must-read oral history of NYC punk, Please Kill Me, then moved on to Jim DeRogatis’ Bangs bio, Let It Blurt. Then after I had my ‘flavor base’–like when you’re cooking–then I started reading the rock critics,” Pollack says. “And I was like, ‘How could they interpret this so wrongly?’”
“Greil Marcus and Christgau are the ones who have the most influence,” Pollack says. “These guys have abstracted music into the level of theory. You have to look at them–they’ve grafted more intellectual pretension onto rock ‘n’ roll than anybody. Greil–he’s venerated and worshipped as a great intellectual in some circles. It’s not like he hasn’t made his contribution. I just disagree with the way he approaches the music. I think he takes it too seriously. To me rock and roll is about beer, noise and taking the piss out of people and having a good time. I don’t like meaning in my music.”
With just one semi-notorious South By Southwest showcase appearance under their belt, the “Neal Pollack Invasion” is on the road, making this a book/concert tour where the boundaries between rock, satire and performance art become even more blurry. And that’s just fine with Pollack.
“It’s enough to make someone scream into their beer, isn’t it? But what else can I say? I’m an extremely clever, evil, manipulative person,” he deadpans. “I’m approaching this book tour like it’s a rock tour.”
Along with the songs on his album, Pollack is readying a batch of covers and a Lucinda Williams parody. In the spirit of showmanship, he says he’s “grown his hair out about half an inch” and invested in a couple of nice new shirts. He admits a tendency to get a little excited when he performs.
“It’s going to be a real fun, rollicking rock and roll show with some reading and comedy,” he promises. “I often take off my shirt, spit on the audience–not always. It depends on the quality of the equipment–I’m paying for this shit myself. I don’t want to destroy anything expensive. I know that’s not very rock ‘n’ roll, but then again, I have a very limited budget.”
As for a career in rock, this tour may well be it, since Pollack has already started researching another literary genre just begging to be sent up.
“My next book looks like it’s going to be about baseball, but it’s also a parody of political thrillers. It’s like a political thriller about baseball, so I’m immersing myself in baseball literature and I’m reading a lot of low-rent political thrillers like the ones you buy at Target and Wal-Mart–the ones with the picture of the White House in flames on the cover. The prose is unspeakable in those books but they’re also possible and so ripe for parody. You can see the way the mind of America works through these political thrillers.”
See Neal Pollack live: Monday, Oct. 6, 5 p.m., reading at UNC-CH’s Bulls Head Bookshop; followed by an appearance of the Neal Pollack Invasion, 7 p.m. in Gerrard Hall, UNC Campus. Chapel Hill’s own Ronald Thomas Clontle, author of Rock, Rot and Rule, will join Pollack onstage to debate the merits of selected rock acts. Both events are free and open to the public.