Books

Edited by Eric Weisbard with Craig Marks
SPIN Alternative Record Guide
(Vintage)

Like any art form, rock music has carved for itself a canon of influential reference points. A "canon," fittingly, is a code often set by religious authorities; as more than one observer has noticed, precious little in modern America has as fervid a following as rock 'n' roll.

That kind of fanaticism breeds restlessness on its fringe, one endemic to self-perceived outsiders. An "alternative" to the rock canon can be dated as far back as the formation of the canon itself, at the outset of rock criticism -- say, the Mothers of Invention's negation of the hippies' overnight sainthood, or the Modern Lovers' 1971 debut, on which Jonathan Richman defiantly declared "I'm Straight," not stoned, unlike Duane Allman (who was deified that year after his death in a motorcycle wreck) or Eric Clapton (aka "God"). More obviously, alternative can be traced to the Ramones' raid of pop's basic elements on behalf of the underground and, overseas, to the Sex Pistols' vandalism of British groupthink.

Ironically, alternative music -- which has only been recognized as a sphere (blob?) unto itself for a half-dozen years or so -- now it has its own canon. Or at least the first salvo has been fired. SPIN, the magazine established a decade ago to provide an antidote to the classic-rock axis of Rolling Stone, has put forth its own version of the iconoclastic genre's definitive checkpoints.

In his introduction to the SPIN Alternative Record Guide, former SF Weekly contributor Eric Weisbard offers a short expository essay titled "What Is Alternative Rock?" Mostly, alternative has been defined only by describing what it is not -- the baldfaced efforts of "mainstream" pop musicians to crack the Top 40 -- but even that holey skiff has been scuttled as alt-rock sails up the charts (to No. 1, even). In some circles, at least, the parlor game that goes by the name of Weisbard's introduction has made for endless hours of amusing opinionmongering, but the SPIN book makes a gallant effort to answer the eternal question.

In part, Weisbard defines "alternative" by distinguishing between mainstream youth culture and more willfully obscure "bohemia," and that's not a bad start. In a short space, he also does a respectable job of mapping the various tributaries that have fed the alternative flow, quoting critic Robert Christgau's "semipop" to describe the delayed influence of music that was, say, too (something) for wider listenership on its first go-round (Flying Burrito Brothers, Big Star, Can).

The SPIN guide looks, feels, and smells like a reference book -- a fact which is sure to raise some hackles, because it's definitely not one. Don't look for the neotraditional country group Freakwater here -- not even as a cross-reference in a bio of Janet Beveridge Bean's primary concern, the Chicago caterwaulers Eleventh Dream Day, because that band is not listed either. The editors say that they set out to create a book that might be read cover to cover, more or less, which means they've concerned themselves with shaping a conversation rather than a document. Unlike the Trouser Press Record Guide, which professes to be an encyclopedic reference for indie rock, the SPIN book leaves out a host of worthy bands and artists in favor of proposing a framework for the alternative canon.

The arbitrary nature of such a structure inevitably leads to confusion and points of contention. For one thing, Captain Beefheart is listed here as a progenitor to alternative, but Frank Zappa's aforementioned Mothers are not. Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson is acknowledged; his peer Mutabaruka is not. Lyle Lovett, in; the trash roots band Uncle Tupelo, out. On a scale of one to 10, Elvis Costello's most recent output is dismissed out of hand with threes and fours: Is that rating in relation to his other work, or to the other music in the book? Trends are addressed by using a seminal compilation album as a launching point, but you're not going to find the "blaxploitation" section unless you know that Sire's 1991 tribute to the style was called Pimps, Players, & Private Eyes.

But such gripes were surely anticipated with glee when the SPIN people embarked on this project. On the plus side of the ledger, the book is full of incisive writing from contributors like Simon Reynolds and Byron Coley; the Bay Area is liberally represented by nearly 10 past and present pundits. If you buy records as though you were a rock critic (i.e., you weigh their "significance" as much as the pure pleasure of their sound to your ears), this guidebook provides as lively a salon for discussion as the best of the music it covers.

-- James Sullivan

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Video killed the radio star, but what killed the video star? Today, the naturally charismatic Bjsrk makes superb videos, yet, trapped by MTV niche-marketing, she's relegated to cult-figure status. Back in the '80s, though, if you looked odd and had a flashy clip, instant fame beckoned: Think Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Annie Lennox, and, of course, Boy George.

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