White's writings on rock: a mix of literary pretensions and hype

February 10, 1991|By Michael Anft


Timothy White.

Henry Holt.

780 pages. $24.95. Video-era news flashes: Mick may have been sleeping witDavid, perhaps after discussing Pete's homosexuality or before watching the MTV-banned Madonna video.

John really was a brutal druggie and bisexual, you know, just as Elvis loved to watch teen angels wrestle naked.

Yes, even the most earnest and well-meaning of pop stars get the tabloid treatment these days. Although none of the above dirt (save Peter Townshend's coming-out party) originated in Timothy White's "Rock Lives," the overriding assumption behind is its foundation: Rock stars are more, uh, interesting than us. Ergo, we should hear what they have to say in their non-musical moments.

Mr. White and a generation of earnest, well-meaning critics have made a living out of deifying rockers who supposedly defined self-liberation circa 1970.

Out of this infatuation have come three things the world could do without: hype about the players, hype and filth on pop's megastars, and rockcritspeak, the strange, not-quite-decipherable language practiced by writers who wish to place rock and roll alongside laser optics in the great scheme of things.

Mr. White often is guilty of Nos. 1 and 3 in "Rock Lives," which in many ways is more of a summation of his busy career and his verbose style than the doings of his subjects.

Anyone who has followed rock journalism for the past couple of decades knows Mr. White. Prolific and often ponderous, he seemingly has voodoo power over editors at the foremost publications dedicated to aggrandizing the young and the reckless who are (or were) their raisons d'etre: Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Musician and Spin.

Mr. White has used his considerable connections well over the years, lining up interviews with, among others, such pop Garbos as Michael Jackson and Jimmy Page.

But his lofty literary ambitions and constant overintellectualizing in "Rock Lives" get him in trouble from the start. In the fTC introduction, Mr. White contends that the assembled profiles and interviews are designed to be read like a novel, "in sequence, as a kind of story with a cumulative lesson. . . . In this way, a plot emerges, one figure learning from, influencing, exciting, threatening and spurring another."

Mr. White is better off when he's not trying to wrap things up in a nice little bundle. Similarly, his interviews fare much better than his thumbnail profiles, especially when Timothy-the-inquisitor eschews his Baba Wawa-esque tendency to pander.

Fortunately, the interviews are devoid of patterns. Each is informed with an individual sensibility, to use the rockcritspeak vernacular.

Not so those profiles. Cliche-ridden ("Elvis Aaron Presley came into this world on . . .") and cursory, these sketches are too paltry to recommend. There's something strange, too, about a rock book that devotes six pages to Presley and a whopping 15 each to James Taylor and Rickie Lee Jones.

Still, Mr. White has some uncharacteristic fun, as when he cleverly exposes Mick Jagger for the self-parodic jerk he is, or when he lines up a damning set of statements on fellow Stone Keith Richards ("He and Anita Pallenberg acquired a reputation around London for corrupting the servants supplied by a Chelsea employment agency with heroin, thereafter taking money they needed for requisite fixes out of their wages. . . . Following the shooting of George Wallace at a political rally in 1972, Keith began carrying a .38 . . .").

We could use more of that Mr. White. Not an Albert Goldman clone, mind you, but someone whose hands get a little less clammy and eyes a bit less googly when it comes time to share a plate of linguine with an artiste.

Let's face it: One can only take thoughts like "Rod Stewart is a gifted songsmith" or "spiraling sexual contentment is then despoiled by crude violence or rent apart by anonymous agents of rage" (in regard to Jimi Hendrix's music) for so many pages.

Mr. Anft is a local writer, musician and rock critic.

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