The Grammar of Rock: Art and Artlessness in 20th-Century Pop Lyrics

  • Alexander Theroux
  • Fantagraphics Books
  • 352 pp.

The “artlessness” of the title conveys the author’s attitude in this quirky and highly subjective retrospective of rock music.

Reading Alexander Theroux’s The Grammar of Rock is like hitching a ride with a suspiciously awake truck driver who talks endlessly for hours and hours and hours, flitting from topic to topic—sometimes funny, sometimes insightful, sometimes infuriating.

The book gets off to quite a likeable start: “Rock ’n’ roll music, any old way you chose it, is one of the things I know I will miss when I’m on my way out. I love it, and have from the beginning, even its attractive imbecilities.” Unfortunately, Theroux rarely follows through on that declaration of love, and the nonstop barrage that follows (there are no chapter breaks) tends toward colorful invective regarding the talents, brain power and/or physical characteristics of singers, actors and even radio hosts.

Theroux’s descriptions of why he dislikes—no, hates—various people are often amusing, albeit in a low-blow way. He observes that the Righteous Brothers “moo”; that Steven Tyler’s “grackle-like attempt to sing the (National) anthem … was cacophonous enough to strip off wallpaper”; that Barry Manilow’s version of “Memory” is “neck-vein-straining talent-in-reverse, almost inspiredly anti-numinous, blindingly insufficient”; that Air Supply is “gonadically challenged”; and that when Katherine Hepburn sings a song, “you feel like you are in the midst of Canadian geese.” He calls Bette Midler a “moose” with “the body consistency of a box jellyfish” and Neil Diamond “Velveeta by the pound” who “mu-shu porks all of his lyrics with greasy fattitude.”  

Theroux goes on to compare Dion with a “screeching weasel in a foot-trap”; says that “listening to Joni Mitchell sing ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ is like hearing fingernails down a chalkboard”; calls Kenny Rogers “the most hackneyed singer in all of country music”; refers to Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” as “almost stadium-filling stink”; and asserts that Barbra Streisand “turns every song into a piece of megahyaline architecture.” Meanwhile, “Willie Nelson virtually never recorded a song not wildly off-key”; Bruce Springsteen’s “articulation is … tortured and crudely boorish”; Maya Angelou is “preposterous and self-inflating”; NPR hosts Robert Siegel and Scott Simon have “fruity, self-cherishing voices” and their opposite number is “beachball-shaped, dugong-soft right-wing broadcaster/boob Rush Limbaugh.” Americans overall are characterized nonsensically as residents of “a country where folks are a few Bradys short of a bunch.”

Throughout, Theroux shows a near-pathological need to use uncommon words (including some not found in my dictionary)—“griffonage,” “usufruct,” “deludinoids,” “brummagem,” “helduckian,” “ultrafidians,” “snool,” “fanfaronade,” “obnubilated,” “chthonian” and “twatwaffling,” to cite just a few. This seems ironic in a book that theoretically celebrates what the author calls “creative illiteracy,” and sometimes does the reader no favors. Consider what Theroux says about “Strawberry Fields” by the Beatles: “It almost reveals in the rabid agglutination of its madness not so much jabberwocky as a kind of polysynthesis!” Um, whatever.

Theroux insists that his strong opinions are based on his thorough knowledge of popular music. “Don’t doubt me,” he writes. “I know almost every song every written.”

Maybe, but there are several he doesn’t know very well. Twice he picks on the Nancy Sinatra hit “These Boots,” complaining that “What you know you ain’t had time to learn” makes no sense. Perhaps that’s because the actual lyric is “What he knows … .” Similarly, he calls the opening line of “Help Me Rhonda” by the Beach Boys “gibbereshesque” and recites it as “Since she put me down I been out doin’ in my pid.” Then he concedes he might be mistaken and it could be “head,” but “How is one supposed to know?” Hmmm. I guess you could look it up online or maybe consider that the final word in the next line is “bed?”

He also misquotes the Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road,” turning “will never disappear” into “they’ll never disappear,” and asserts, incorrectly, that Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” consists entirely of one line repeated again and again. And while few would disagree that Neil Diamond’s “I Am I Said” includes one of the all-time clunker lines—“And no one heard at all, not even the chair”—Theroux even manages to mishear that as “no one said a word….”

Errors like these are especially puzzling from an author who is picky enough to object to Otis Redding, in “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” understating the distance between Georgia and San Francisco as a mere “two thousand miles I roamed.”

Troubling inaccuracies and verbal diarrhea aside, there are a few clever and nice observations.  Early on, Theroux points out, “I still do not know what a beguine is, neither do you, nor do I have the foggiest idea what happens when one begins—or begins to begin.” Frank Sinatra, one of the very few entertainers Theroux seems to admire (along with Louis Armstrong and The Turtles), “always ended a love song softly, gently, easily … a soft deceleration, imperceptible newtons mildly reversing, in much the same way that an expensive elevator, with a smoothing yet inconspicuous buss, adds a final slow rise as it settles at the lip of your floor.”

Readers are praised in a backhanded way: “After hearing that Gary Cooper never read a book in his entire life, I could never watch one of his movies again without thinking of him as a footstool.”

Ultimately, does Theroux take us anywhere? No, and toward the end of the book he strongly suggests that even he thinks the trip may be pointless: “Everywhere in this blasted country if you shop, eat out, wherever you go, it is impossible to avoid hearing music—and almost always detestable music.” All in all, this book is a very cold love letter.

Randy Cepuch was a Top 40 DJ in the 1970s.

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