That Obscure Object of Desire

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Rock Snob

T o resuscitate a politically incorrect adage, a housewife’s work is never done, and neither, for that matter, is the work of the ever-vigilant rock snob. True mastery is always a box set away. How to keep up with it all, especially when those sadists at Rhino Records release a must-have, completist-fetish item from some overlooked, seminal pioneer band every ten minutes? It’s enough to make you lay your head down on that stack of rare bluegrass records you haven’t listened to and cry.
    Enter The Rock Snob’s Dictionary, or the Rock Snob’s Little Helper, or more like the Rock Snob’s beleaguered-significant-other-who’s-tired-of-being-condescended-to-for-not-knowing-what-the-hell-Nanker-Phelge is-all-about’s Little Helper.
    David Kamp and Steven Daly, both contributors to Vanity Fair (where excerpts of the book first appeared), have boiled down their vast knowledge into a deliciously portable compendium. It’s not comprehensive, or even hip. In fact, TRSD is a stalwart collection meant to weather the tempestuous winds of trend. We think we did a pretty good job transcribing every snob witticism and cred-maintaining reference Kemp and Daly threw our way, but if we made any errors, you can read all about them on their website, where in typical rock-snob fashion, they review their reviews. — Margaret Wappler


David and Steven, what are your rock-snob credentials?
Steven: I used to be in a minor indie-rock band called Orange Juice, which was an object of rock-snob lust. We basically invented indie rock, and I say that with a smile on my face. Some re-releases are coming out soon, and they are getting the silliest reviews in Britain. The subtext of the reviews is that it’s better than it sounds. I also worked for Spin for a while, but that’s probably to my discredit.
David: I grew up a younger brother of a rock snob. The Captain Beefheart album was handed down, along with Nick Drake, and I soaked them up. I also came of age in the college indie scene when R.E.M. was this magical thing on the precipice of selling out. Actually, I went to college with [Nerve co-founder] Rufus Griscom. He and I both were the sort of vaguely sullen people who thought that to experience true pleasure in music we had to be sullen — the patented indie stance. So that also shaped the whole rock-snob thing.
Has your brother read the book?
David: My brother has read the excerpts in Vanity Fair over the years, so he feels culpable. He also used to give me Rolling Stone to read. It has little resemblance now to what it used to be, but I would read that and would soak it in when I didn’t even understand it. It was on newsprint and I’d read about things like a jam session at L.A.’s Troubadour between Delany and Bonnie, and God Knows Who. It’s all lost in my brain, and it all came pouring out into this book. Finally, I found a place to put all of this.
Steven: It’s like you’ve given your brain a high colonic.
If one wants to be a rock snob, where should one start?
Steven: The Rock Snob’s Dictionary, of course. But then with the advent of these obscure CD re-releases that come very well annotated, you can catch up with all sorts of things.
David: It used to be that you’d have to accumulate the rock snob’s canon over a lifetime. But young kids are becoming rock snobs just from buying a box set. Nowadays music doesn’t vanish into thin air. There’s no longer this ephemeral quality where a record could be released and then disappear a year later. Now anything can be rescued and plucked out of obscurity.
Is this a book for men?
David: Our book speaks to a funny gender divide. A lot of women recognize their boyfriends, their husbands —
Steven: Their ex-husbands.
David: Oh, yes, these self-serious twits that they’re sharing a bed with, or were formerly sharing a bed with. We’ve heard from a lot of women who find this a helpful entrée into the minds of the men they sleep with.
Steven: That’s why we got the book shelved in three places: in music, self-help and self-defense. The self-defense part is for people who want to be able to go head-to-head with a rock snob, or at least hold their own in an argument.
David: But there are female rock snobs, like Courtney Love. I remember this indie record shop from when I was kid, and there were always these goth girls hanging around in their torn stockings, just spewing everything they knew about music as you walked by. They were usually a little overweight, with faces full of smeared makeup. Courtney Love was one of those girls [not literally], but she cleaned up, lost some weight (and then had plastic surgery later), and snared an authentic rock god, so she could then use the press to spout off about all sorts of things.
How has the music industry changed rock snobbery?
Steven: The re-relase industry has changed everything. I remember wanting to get the New York Dolls when that album came out, but I missed it and it was gone. These records were deleted, you couldn’t get the Stooges record after it was released, they just disappeared from the face of the earth. When I left high school in 1977 (at sixteen), I worked in Glasgow’s best record store, so I got to look at all the secondhand albums as they came in — but these proto-punk classics rarely seemed to come back into circulation.
David: Nothing ever disappears now, but the snobs revel in the obscure, and the Holy Grail is the album that is still out of print, that you can only find on original vinyl. Morrissey ruined one of the snob romances when he put out the first openly homosexual performer, Jobriath. He put it out with “Morrissey Presents” on the cover, and the album is really god-awful. Now people can hear how crappy the music is and now the snobbery romance is gone. He was a Broadway performer, a former Hair cast member. Maybe now in the age of Scissor Sisters, he would be successful, but the Scissor Sisters are actually pretty good . . .
Steven: Hold on, did you actually defend someone’s music?
David: Why, yes. I like the Scissor Sisters.

[We expected an icy rock-snob silence to freeze the phone line at this point. Instead, the men broke out in cheery laughter.] How often should a snob rewrite his top-ten lists, or desert-island lists, à la Rob Gordon in High Fidelity?
Steven: It usually moves in geological time. Unless an absolute catastrophe happens, and an obscure Big Star track ends up on the Gilmore Girls soundtrack. Then you’ve got to recalibrate everything, and they may deserve to be kicked off the list.
David: Out of nowhere, the rock-snob phenomena can still happen. Take the band Slint, heroes to noodly post-rock fans. They do things with shifting time signatures, et cetera. They have not put out an album since 1991 [Writer’s note: A-ha! Allmusic.com says that Slint S/T was released in 1994! Booyah!], but this album of theirs, Spiderland, has been suddenly re-released. Now Mojo and Blender and Spin and all the rest of them are tripping over themselves praising this album that was basically ignored upon its original release. And now Slint are reunited and are touring. So that’s a case when the canon could be revised, to make room for a band like Slint, if you haven’t already.
How does one spot a rock snob at a party? Can you describe the typical male and female rock snobs?
Steven: The male of the species flourish because these are guys who don’t have a good deal of luck with the gentler sex [laughs], so they put their energy into something else. It would be the person at the party who’s going to ask you who you’re listening to, and they’d give you only one shot, and then whoever you said, they’d turn around and tell you more about that band than you ever wanted to know.
David: There are two schools of the male rock snob: One is the slovenly guys who will never cohabitate with women, the Jack Black type in High Fidelity or even School of Rock. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t budge on his opinions — it’s my way or the highway. Then there is the romantic embodiment, who is John Cusack in High Fidelity and Say Anything. He’s the guy who labors over mix tapes for his girl. Or he holds up the stereo in the pouring rain, playing Peter Gabriel.
But with the female snob, it’s not always a fat goth girl. A month or two ago, we ran our best-dressed list in Vanity Fair. Sofia Coppola was asked to name her sartorial influence, and she said Siouxsie Sioux. Siouxsie Sioux! It’s in her movies, though. Just think about the karaoke scene in Lost In Translation, the choice of music. She’s an emerging rock snob, she’s one to watch. She’s getting into the Wes Anderson zone. Though we don’t mention him in the book, Wes Anderson has exquisitely calibrated rock-snob taste — using Nico songs in Royal Tenenbaums, using Lennon’s “Oh, Yoko” during a crucial point in Rushmore, using Portuguese versions of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust-era songs in The Life Aquatic. The dude just nails the snob sensibility, though, I must admit, artfully. Is rock snobbery on the rise or decline?
Steven: Rock snobbery is on the rise in all kinds of places: for instance, Janeane Garofalo’s Air America show uses music from snob-approved, post-punk bands like Aztec Camera as bumper music. On CNN, one of Anderson Cooper’s producers has similarly used tracks from Television, among other incongruously hip acts.

What’s the most overused word in the rock snob’s vocabulary?
David: There is this compulsion to describe guitar solos as "coruscating." The word "plangent" is confusing to people, because they take it as onomatopoeia. They think it means soft and chiming, but it means loud and resounding. Also, "seminal," as in the seminal band, the seminal song, which basically means any rocker who was in on a trend too early to make money.
Steven: With the book out and exposing these kinds of things, the snobs are going to be so self-conscious about using these terms, no one will be able to use them after a while. We’ll have to leave them out when we update it.

If you could dispense with one figurehead embraced by rock snobs, who would it be?
David: I know who Steven is going to say. Jobriath, right?
Steven: I would say Jobriath. But I don’t mind a little cheese in there. I don’t like the category of alt-country at all. I just think it’s horrendous. It would be like when I was a teenager and Dixieland Jazz would be playing. There’s just no reason to carry that on.
David: I would take a lateral step from that and say Gram Parsons. I just think he’s criminally overrated. There’s been this weird weight bestowed upon his solo work. He’s considered to be this god, especially since he died young of a morphine overdose. People just uphold him as this mighty figure, but I can think of so many others more deserved. Gene Clark is better; he’s the most handsome member of the Byrds. He drank himself to death, but he’s sexier, too.

Does dying young grant you automatic canonization?
David: If you die young, or if you’re overlooked. Or if you don’t die young, you can become an acid casualty like Syd Barrett or Roky Erickson of the 13th-Floor Elevators of Austin.
Steven: The dying-young thing, or falling into early retirement, is appealing because it leaves the original texte — and I do mean that with an “e” on the end — intact and untouched. Gram Parsons can’t come back and make a mediocre album. He’s not going to come back and collaborate with Billy Joel. It turns into the perfect oeuvre.
David: Part of the problem with Johnny Cash is that he didn’t die young and kept making albums. He became casually uncool until Rick Rubin spruced him up. Rubin stripped him down to the early, uncheesified article of his youthful rebellion. And art direction sure helped in that case. Actually, art direction can make a huge difference. With re-releases like Esquivel and Burt Bacharach, those were as much a triumph of good art direction as it was a case for the music.
This is obviously a selective dictionary. How did you decide what to include? What were the hardest cuts to make?
Steven: The hardest thing to do was the Hall of Shame, the Hate Figures and the Overlooked Masterpieces — the ludicrous records that were unsung, largely for good reasons. And the Rock Snob villains. Gosh, we could’ve written whole books on all of those things.
David: The other thing is that there’s a certain intangible quality to the book. Someone asked why Lowell George, the leader of Little Feat, wasn’t in there. Well, he’s part of rock history, but he’s not a secret. Someone asked why Gene Clark is in there and not David Crosby. Everyone knows who Crosby is. He dated Joni Mitchell and is blamed for having broken up the Buffalo Springfield. You ask someone to hum a few bars of a CSN song, and they can do it. But who can name a Gene Clark song or album? It’s not this precious, hoarded secret rock snobs live for, like the Master Musicians of Jajouka. The album is Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka. He went to Morocco on holiday in the late ’60s, and recorded these Moroccan musicians. They are now known as the master musicians of Jajouka.
Steven: I actually have the album on vinyl. I’ve never played it because I don’t like world music but—
David: Oh, that’s pathetic. You’re pathetic. To have that record and to have never listened to it. Geez. Well, then again, I’ve got it on CD and I’ve listened to it, so I don’t know which is worse.
[Silence, mutual contemplation.]
David: [apologetically] I guess it’s nice to put on when you have a dinner party.

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©2005 Margaret Wappler and Nerve.com.