Smartass: The Music Journalism of Joel Selvin

Smartass is a pretty straightforward title for a book, no? Kind of gives the impression that its pages will be filled with constant sarcasm, biting wit, probably the description of a few fistfights resulting from those first two things. If this Selvin guy is a music journalist and a smartass, then certainly he got himself into a fair number of fistfights or word jousts. Or that’s what I thought, anyway. Turns out the book was much tamer than that.

In fact, it wasn’t about him at all. It was just a collection of most of his San Francisco Chronicle pieces, with a few magazine pieces and liner notes thrown in there for variety and good measure. It’s actually rather haphazardly assembled, as evidenced by the copious typos, which is disturbing if you consider that every one of the words in this book was published somewhere else before, but try not to let it bother you. There’s really too much good information in here not to read it, if you’re a fan of the whole Music Scene Thing.

I consider myself pretty well-versed in the music of my parents, which is probably exactly why my parents bought this book for me. They know I was secretly meant to live alongside them in the 60s and 70s, since I consider Creedence Clearwater Revival and Huey Lewis and the News among my favorite bands to this day. But in reading this book, in taking in the truly rich and often under-appreciated history of the San Francisco rock music scene, I realized that my musical education contains many holes. This plugged up quite a few, or at least sparked my curiosity in researching “new” bands on my own. The note I made most to myself in reading this book, for better or worse, was “check out more stuff by this guy.”

One mystery that was only partially solved by this book was that of the Grateful Dead. I still don’t completely understand them, but I do know that, had I been around in their heyday, I would have been a total Deadhead. I listen to the Dave Matthews Band, for dog’s sake. I like a jam band. I became rather enamored with the idea of listening to Merle Haggard, Boz Scaggs, Glen Campbell, Eddie Cochran, and The Band, and investigating Bill Graham, too, thanks to Selvin’s persistent, thorough writing. I wish this book came with a soundtrack, because it would be an exhaustive, fascinating survey of 40 years of solid rock.

Selvin’s writing is not as confrontational as I imagined it to be, which only makes me curious about his in-person presence. His words are clear and concise and flattering when they need to be, as when he described the Beatles in San Francisco (p. 127): “Borrowing a private jet that belonged to Frank Sinatra, McCartney showed up unannounced at a Jefferson Airplane rehearsal in the empty synagogue next to the Fillmore, carrying an acetate of the album the Beatles just finished recording, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ more than three months before his bandmate George Harrison made his celebrated stroll down Haight Street in those heart-shaped sunglasses.” How dreamy those months must have been. But not everyone is displayed in that ethereal, favorable light. Thanks to frank portrayals of Sly Stone (p. 79) and John Fogerty (p. 232), for example, I learned that both of these extremely famous, charismatic individuals were also massive douchebags, enamored with their own talent and fame. Only Selvin can drop these names like he does, casually, and get away with it.

But Selvin is not a perfect writer, as he tend to exaggerate. He liberally throws around “the greatest” to describe several of his article subjects, which contrasts oddly with his mostly minimalist style and sort of dilutes the term by the time you reach the end of the book. He also falls prey to–or maybe he was the one who invented it?–cliched music journalism sentence structure. In describing Fogerty’s 1997 album, he lists songs with tired adjective lead-ins, which actually makes me not want to listen to the album: They range from the trademark twangy guitar of ‘Blue Boy’ to the Rolling Stones-style crunch of ‘Bring It On Down to Jelly Roll,’ from the country romp ‘Rambunctious Boy’ to the eerie ‘Walking in a Hurricane,’ the first single.” All music journalists do this, and it’s terrible. Let’s make a pact to stop, now.

I know I’ve found fault with the writings of a legend. I can’t help it. It’s in my nature to be critical, especially of another critic. But even with my nit-picking, I did take away the richness of his storytelling and the sincerity of his recommendations, which is really all any critic wants from a reader. And now I have to go raid my dad’s CD collection again.

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One comment

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