Monday, July 18, 2005

The Bruce Springsteen of rock critics, or something like that

I promised I’d write about this, so here goes.

Jon Landau was the Bruce Springsteen of rock critics: smart and diverse tastes, deep emotional commitment to his material, intent on sharing his excitement with anyone who’ll listen. It’s Too Late To Stop Now: A Rock and Roll Journal, published in 1972, is a collection of the best of his late-‘60s and early-‘70s essays on pop music.

I don’t want to go on too long here, except to indicate (a) these essays are really interesting and provocative, (b) you oughta read ‘em, and (c) as I wrote last week I wish I’d reread this while I was researching Runaway American Dream. His big-picture predictions about what rock’n’roll in the ‘70s would be like turned out to be true (with The Pretender and Darkness on the Edge of Town, he helped make his own predictions come true), his dissections of how he saw the Rolling Stones peaking are surprising – especially since Exile on Main Street was still in progress, and his essay on Aretha Franklin and King Curtis’s legendary Fillmore West extravaganza is a lovely as anything written about soul this side of Peter Guralnick. His most piercing comments are directed toward Bob Dylan: he writes Self-Portrait “will be one of the most bought and least played records of recent years” and his reading of Blonde on Blonde will reveal something new even to those of us who’ve heard the record too many times to count. And anyone who writes sentence that includes “The Doors” and “dead end” is likely to come up with work that is beloved by me.

Landau wrote with a personal voice. He was unafraid of first person, and his work drew power from personal experience (concerts to Brandeis). His most famous piece, of course, wasn’t written until 1974 and is not included in the book. It’s his review of a Springsteen performance at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge, the one that included the (in)famous line, “I saw rock & roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” It ends with some of the most telling, beautiful, and instructive lines ever written about any kind of criticism: “As long as I write about rock, my mission is to tell a stranger about it—just as long as I remember that I’m the stranger I’m writing for.” If you can surprise yourself, you might just surprise your audience. It’s the mission for any writer, in any field.