I've been revisiting Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces lately, & thinking about one of my fantasy jobs – music journalism. Fantasy, that is, because aside from all the logistical business of swapping one career for another, it's pretty damned difficult to intellectually retool oneself at my advanced age. Once upon a time – back when I was in high school & an undergraduate, I'd have dropped everything for a gig reviewing records and concerts. Now, I'm not so sure that even if such an opportunity offered itself I'd take it.
For one thing, I don't think I have the kind of concentrated listening attention span I used to. I probably listen to more or less as much music as I did back in the day, but I'm not sure I listen to it as closely as I once did, or respond to it as deeply. I'm still capable of hearing a song or composition that I want to listen to over & over, & proceeding to play it repeatedly. But I have much less patience with the pieces that don't somehow catch my attention in the 1st or 2nd hearing. Maybe that means my tastes are more refined – that I'm able more immediately to separate the wheat from the chaff. Maybe it means that my musical palate is somewhat more blunted than it once was, so that it takes more & more stimulation to rouse it (make the vindaloo hotter & hotter, please).
But heaven knows music writing out there could use some help, if the books I've been dipping in are any indication. Lipstick Traces remains spirited & exciting, but I really have very little patience for what happens when Marcus starts writing about particular songs or particular musical moments: instead of describing or analyzing in any systematic manner what's going on in a given song, he spirals off in fugues of free association, essentially telling us what chains of thought the song is giving rise to in his head.
Jon Savage's England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, which I've also picked up, is the kind of day-by-day history only an obsessive-compulsive fan & archivist could write – and only an obsessive-compulsive fan & archivist could really enjoy. It's nice that what every member of the first lineup of the Pistols were up to any given week has been recorded, but it's not exactly enjoyable reading for the non-completist. (Hey, maybe that's it! – I'm just not a completist anymore.)
Simon Reynolds's Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 is the closest to what I'd see myself as writing: a roughly chronologically organized history of the second generation of punk music, with some decent descriptions & analysis of the music itself, profiles of crucial players (many of them far from famous), and a solid sense of how aesthetic form was influenced by social and political forces. Thus far, alas, it's a bit on the bland side, and (like Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise) rather too broad in its scope to pay enough attention to any given moment. I guess that's the drawback of writing broad-stroke history – even if 400 pages for 5 years isn't exactly a thumbnail sketch. Most irritating moment: looking for bibliography/discography/reference notes at the end of the book (they weren't there), only to be told that I could find them by shlepping over to Reynolds's website (www.simonreynolds.net). I expected better from you, Penguin Books.
update: www.simonreynolds.net is now one of those "you could own this site" sites; the notes are here, however, on one of Reynolds's rather interesting blogs.