April 19, 2005

Rock n' Role-Play

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David Kamp and Steven Daly’s admirable The Rock Snob’s Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Rockilogical Knowledge suffers from one grievous flaw: The concept of a rock snob manual is incompatible with the concept of a rock snob. The ideal indiellectual does not need a how-to book to define his coolness and erudition. He is supposed to intuitively understand the history of obsolescent pop singles, rare live albums and eccentric ’70s punk labels. If you want to be a true snob, you need to give off the aura of total nonchalance and spontaneity; music knowledge needs to secrete out of your pores. You can’t look like you sit around your artist’s loft all day, obsessing over music blogs and export catalogues. You certainly can’t be found in possession of a rock dictionary (or any dictionary for that matter).

For that reason, there are really only two ways to read this book: 1) alone and under the covers or 2) out loud in a bookstore, yelling to no one in particular that “everyone knows that” or “I can’t believe they forgot to include Parson Sound!” However, the dictionary is also useful as a sociological analysis of why rock snobs are such crashing bores; they’re hopelessly caught somewhere between fetid flea-market freaks and input/output network console byte programmers. In general, rock snobs are horrible people who exploit good music in the name of a comprehensive — and pointless — taxonomy. It’s no wonder that Kamp and Daly, two Vanity Fair editors, define the snob as “the sort of pop connoisseur for whom the actual enjoyment of music is but a side dish to the accumulation of arcane knowledge about it.”

Still, The Rock Snob’s Dictionary is surprisingly comprehensive considering that the rock canon is still relatively unknown and unstable. The authors could not simply search through former music encyclopedias to uncover such disparate candidates as the gay glam-rocker Jobriath and eccentric cult-folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie. There are also, of course, all your standard “classic” cult artists: Roxy Music, New York Dolls, Nilsson, Last Poets, Ian Dury, etc. Nearly all these musicians (except perhaps the soundtrack composers) will be familiar to readers of Uncut, The Wire or any other UK magazine. Nevertheless, the book acts as a one-stop resource for identifying the most well-regarded albums and era-specific genres. Fortunately, all the entries are written in an impeccably ironic style that practically ooze indie cred. For example, the sunshine pop of The Free Design is lovingly ridiculed as “diabetic-endangering” and legendary prog guitarist Robert Fripp is valorized as the “tiny British guitar god of nutty-professor mien.”

The dictionary also appeals to the already-pretentious rock fan with its nearly clinical definitions of guitar/amp models, as well as the idiosyncratic profiles of agents, critics, promoters and producers. We find out that the English author Nik Cohn was responsible for The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” that Zigzag editor Pete Frame invented the idea of the “rock genealogy” chart and that Dylan producer Tom Wilson was responsible for urging Al Kooper to play the legendary organ riff on “Like a Rolling Stone.”

It’s of course impossible to condense the entire history of outsider music — from ’50s rockabilly through today’s neo-no-wave — but the authors do a satisfying job of providing the primary terms and genres that can lead fans to more exotic artists. The only real deficiencies I noticed are a surprising lack of references to international music (besides Western Europe). Surely the authors could have found room for some Latin American garage, Southeast Asian pop and the whole spectrum of dub and disco, particularly when these areas are so influential in the global market place right now. Until that sequel is written, the Dictionary acts as a phenomenal primer to sex, drugs and arrogance.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Sun Senior Writer