Saturday, October 15, 2005

Everything You Know Is Wrong

One thing that really frustrates me about many reference works on rock history is how frequently they offer misinformation. Not on the big stuff, of course, but too often the tiny details that flesh the story out are, frankly, wrong.

Worse, once in print bad info has a tendency to get repeated. Robbie Robertson was in Toronto recently, promoting the Band retrospective A Musical History, and complained that the liner notes to the previous Band box, Across the Great Divide, was “just all wrong. I couldn’t relate to it, because that’s not right, that’s not true, that’s not it… Over the years, there has been a lot of things written and stuff that’s just not factual. And I thought, God, there are people out there who read these things, because that’s what’s out there, so that’s what they believe. Let’s straighten that out. Let’s make it so that’s not a problem anymore.”

A day later, as I was turning that interview into a piece for the Globe and Mail, I re-read Greil Marcus’ essay on the Band from Mystery Train, where I came upon the following footnote on the group’s pre-history: “The names of those bands are too good to leave out: The Robots, the Consuls, Thumper and the Trombones…” Now, here’s version from the Musical History liner notes: “…Robbie and the Robots, Thumper and the Trambones, Little Caesar and the Consuls…” Minor differences all, and yet they make a world of difference. (Little Caesar and the Consuls is much wittier than the Consuls.)

That’s not to harsh on Marcus, but it does speak to the primary weakness of much rock history: It’s based on interviews with the music press, interviews that by and large simply take the musician at his word (or, at least, as much of his word as the reporter can make out). Trouble is, musicians aren’t always the most reliable sources. Sometimes they forget details, or exaggerate to make a better story, or make stuff up to reinforce a myth. Hell, sometimes they lie simply because it’s more fun. Stan Ridgway once told me that he loved speaking with the English press, because you could tell them anything and they’d print it. So he’d make up ridiculous stories involving movie stars and other celebrities, and sure enough, they’d turn up in print a few days or weeks later.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with daily paper reporters on short deadline filing stories that essentially amount to This Is What the Person Said. The news is frequently like that. Unfortunately, where news reporters sometimes follow up their quote-driven stories with investigative pieces that confirm or contradict what was said, pop music writers almost never do. Worse, other writers then reiterate those quotes without bothering to check their veracity, and before you know it, conversational bullshit has been enshrined as historical fact.

Fortunately, that is beginning to change. Writers as far afield as Charles Cross (in his Kurt Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven), Ned Sublette (in his towering study Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo) and Jeff Chang (in his award-winning Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation) have significantly raised the bar for pop music books by doing the sort of research traditional historians and biographers have always done. Of course, correcting all the misinformation floating through the pop world would be a task on par with cleaning the Stables of Augeas, especially given the ease with which bad “facts” proliferate on the internet. But it’s worth trying to maintain standards, and double-checking to be sure the story you’re reading is the right one.

It's funny, because Marcus himself once wrote an essay about this very thing--specifically about Altamont, where reporter after reporter after critic after critic (year after year) noted that the Stones were performing "Sympathy For the Devil" while the murder occurred, when in fact, it was "Under My Thumb" (the point being, of course, that "Sympathy," as the song during that moment, makes for such better copy).

Also, what is Robbie Robertson referring to exactly about those liner notes? Something factual--an incorrect date? an erroneous song title?--or a telling of events that puts him in a different light than he'd like? There's a big difference, obviously.

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