|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
Fear and Loathing in the Rock & Roll Church
Who cares about Bruce Springsteen? In the scant year-and-a-half since Don Malcolm wrote his piece, virtually the only voice of reason at the height of the Hype, the question has become increasingly nebulous. Who cares, indeed! In the Fall of 1975 the hype seemed omniscient, a global conspiracy against reason and common sense. Since then much has happened, which affects the tone of Malcolm's piece without diminishing its wisdom.
For one thing, The Future of Rock 'n' Roll has been sidelined in court, rendering him unmarketable -- which practically means unmentionable as well. For another, other attractions have come along; at the end of 1975 Patti Smith outstripped Springsteen in the Voice's critics poll, with many of the Hype's principals offering only token support and some recanting altogether. The whole episode stands as the greatest embarrassment in the history of rock criticism, and people were beginning to realize that.
Since then Springsteen has continued to get more and better press than he deserves, but the rotten air has pretty much passed. Some recalcitrants -- e.g., Dave Marsh, whose "quickie" biog of Springsteen got tied up in Springsteen's legal squabbles -- have stuck to their guns, while others -- e.g., Paul Nelson -- have tried to cover up their foibles by transferring them to worthier newcomers like Graham Parker. Needless to say, such critical strategems are abominable. There is still much dirty linen to air; the inclination to sweep the whole affair under the rug amounts to an attempt to shelter from critical scrutiny the rabid prejudices that fomented it.
The religious imagery is correct: when rock and roll becomes a tradition it assumes the sanctimony of a church. The populace is divided among followers of the faith, nonfollowers, and heretics. Springsteen projected himself as a diffusion formalists, enacting his rites at every concert. He offered himself as a panacea for historical change; those disgruntled with the turn of events flocked to him to repent of their sins and be taken up into the fold. The Hype became tantamount to a Rock and Roll Awakening.
Centuries ago this infusion of zealotry might have compensated for its accompanying abuses of liberties and reason, but the world today is nowhere near so homeostatic; the Rock 'n' Roll Revival was inevitably secular, which means that it could never have amounted to much anyway. Impotent from the start, the Revival took on the air of a swindle; Columbia Records understood that well, taking the money and ducking out, leaving fans, critics and Messiah alike with egg on their faces.
Things have changed now, but the problem is still with us. Springsteen himself has been irrevocably damaged by his grovelling press; for the auteur of "Jungleland," that serves him right. For all intents and purposes he is finished; one may only pray that the litigation is interminable, saving us and him from further embarrassment. But the critics are still working, and must remain devout; they still fail to own up to the history of diffusion, and they still try to cover up their ahistorical, nonaesthetic judgments with testimony. One need only note tht across-the-board support given Bob Seger's Night Moves.
That Seger's ministry lacks the flash and flamboyance of Springsteen's only makes him a more perfect retreat; no way Seger is going to burn them like Springsteen. Seger even has credentials. I even like him, but Seger's consensus is not based on his excellence. It is history: Seger was the right man in the right place at the right time. The Awakening retreats to secularism, a readymade apology if ever there was one. After all, how can one possibly object to freedom of religion?
Whereas rock critics had turned themselves into scenemakers, climbing all over one another to better witness The Next Big Thing, now they fall back on good ol' taste, the aesthetics of business as usual. Though the recalcitrants may still dispute this, Springsteen was not The Next Big Thing. Aerosmith was. Or Peter Frampton. All the more cause for secularization: Next Big Things just aren't what they used to be. Perhaps some ambitious critic could seize on that awareness and conclude that times have changed; perhaps criticism should change as well.
This piece was a postscript to a piece that Don Malcolm wrote called "Who Is Bruce Springsteen? Who Cares," published just before it in Terminal Zone. Malcolm's piece was originally written in 1975 in the wake of the Born to Run hype. (Remember the Time magazine cover?) My piece was written in the wake of Darkness at the Edge of Town. We caught more flak for these two piece than anything else in the magazine.