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Prairie Pop: The Most Unforgettable Voice You've Never Heard

Rarely has a lowly rock critic altered the course of popular music history, but Chuck Eddy did. Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but bear with me. Back in the mid-1980s he reviewed Aerosmith’s Done With Mirrors, which captured the band at the lowest point in their career. When that album was released, they were basically washed up has-beens whose coke-fueled rocket had fallen from the stars.

Eddy recounts that his Village Voice review mentioned that Aerosmith songs like “Walk This Way” were “sort of rap music before rap existed, and maybe an enterprising DJ should segue one of them into the (not yet famous) Beastie Boys’ ‘She’s On It’ single sometime.” His editor, Doug Simmons, thought that he was simply messing with readers’ minds and being contrarian–a charge that has often been leveled at Eddy, much to his chagrin.

At that exact moment, Run-DMC was recording Raising Hell, which was produced by Rick Rubin (who went on to make records with everyone from the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash and Slayer.) Rubin read Chuck Eddy’s review, and a couple weeks later a press release went out stating that Run-DMC would be covering “Walk This Way.” The rest is history. After their collaboration, Run-DMC blew open the commercial doors for hip hop and Aerosmith became bigger (and lamer) than they ever were in the 1970s. Speaking of the latter group, Eddy quips, “They still owe me, and so do Liv Tyler and Alicia Silverstone.”

As Chuck Eddy is careful to point out, the only reason why his aside about Aerosmith’s proto-rap vocals resonated with Rubin was because the producer was already a big fan of the group. But what if Eddy’s editor had taken out that line, or Rubin skipped reading the Voice that week? Because Run-DMC was finishing up Raising Hell, “Walk This Way” probably would have never made it on the record. It’s no wonder that Eddy named his second book The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism is Chuck Eddy’s latest book. It anthologizes selections of his massive output over the years, though I should note that the subtitle is a little misleading. The earliest piece is from 1981, which makes it a full three decades of music criticism. When I point this out, Chuck just laughs and tells me, “A quarter century sounds weightier.” That first article was published in the University of Missouri’s college paper, The Missourian, and it could possibly be the first article about a regional rap musician published in the Midwest. (The main reason Eddy included it is because he says its headline–“Rhymed Funk Hits Area”–sounds like it was ripped from the pages of The Onion.)

Even though I had been reading music criticism since the mid-1980s, I never read bylines, so it wasn’t until The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll came out in 1997 that I became a fan. (Full disclosure: Chuck encouraged me when I first started writing professionally about music in the second half of the 1990s and when the Village Voice hired Eddy as an editor he added me to the rotation of record reviewers.)

His Mexican-jumping-bean prose style and rock-crit-conventional-wisdom-smashing argumentation leapt from the pages and sounded like music to me (unlike 99.9% of other critics out there.) Take Eddy’s Village Voice review of Debbie Gibson’s 1987 mega-hit “Shake Your Love,” which is included in the new anthology. In it, he spoke of the song’s “prefornicating id-level triple-entendre title,” and its “exuberant domino-effect rhythm.” His review of a 12-inch single by mid-1980s Chicago house-music legend Phuture is bursting with even more dizzying Eddy-isms: “arrogant laser-zooms thickening into a dark, vicious gel as skeletal kickdrums push through wormholes,” and so on.

“The reason Chuck Eddy’s writing is so engaging ultimately comes down to the one quality that cannot be taught or manufactured–voice,” Chuck Klosterman tells me. “His writing just has a natural, distinctive, propulsive voice. And sometimes that voice bulldozes everything, and sometimes it actually distracts from what he’s trying to argue. But there’s nothing more important than making people unable to stop reading your sentences, and I can’t think of any other rock critic who comes remotely close to Eddy in this specific regard.”

Eddy’s writing helped rewire my brain, though in retrospect I was already primed for the eclectic aesthetic he championed. I was a 1980s kid whose listening time was equally divided between Top-40 radio, hip hop and punk–as is evidenced by the fact that the first two cassettes I bought with my own money were Madonna’s Like a Virgin and the Butthole Surfers’ Rembrandt Pussyhorse. I didn’t see any contradiction in liking Ms. Ciccone’s pop gloss and the psychedelic vomit-punk produced by the latter group. In fact, I wasn’t capable of understanding there even could be a contradiction.

Chuck is a decade older than me, so he followed a different path to pop. “By the late ’80s, as I was burning myself out on the angry and abrasive indie rock that had become my bread and butter, I somehow brainstormed that there was shameless stuff all over the radio that might be more fun to write about,” he writes in Rock and Roll Always Forgets. “In retrospect, reviewing teen princess Debbie Gibson’s 1987 debut album in the Village Voice doesn’t seem strange at all; in fact, given that it stayed on the charts for 89 weeks and sold three million copies in the United States alone, it would almost seem neglectful not to pay attention to it.”

During the 1980s he also carved out a niche writing about metal–back when rock critics tended to shun this music. That led him to pen his first book, the 1991 genre-busting classic, Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums In the Universe. It by no means is your typical hack-job music encyclopedia. “To this day, I’ve never found a nonfiction book with more voice-per-square-inch than Stairway to Hell,” writes Chuck Klosterman in the Foreword to Rock and Roll Always Forgets. “It was so funny. It was so maddening. It made no sense. Jimi Hendrix was boring? White Lion was a blues band? Black Sabbath was a jazz band?”

“Crown came to me wanting to do a heavy metal encyclopedia,” Eddy says, telling me about the book’s genesis. “I didn’t even have a single Judas Priest or Iron Maiden album at the time, and I wasn’t about to go out and buy them, so I proposed that I pick 500 classic heavy metal albums.” He simply went to his record collection and chose albums he believed could be considered metal. “It wasn’t a contrarian thing,” he says. “Sure, I had fun with it and I did have a wide definition of ‘heavy metal’ in my head–which I might have stretched a little bit.” He sure did, but that made Stairway to Hell a much more interesting read.

Although it begins with two standard-bearers of heaviness–Led Zeppelin IV at number one and Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction in second place–it quickly descends into dumbfounding territory for your average metalhead. Among other things, Teena Marie’s Emerald City comes in at number nine, squeezed between Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Rust Never Sleeps and the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s Phase Two. What makes the book so fun and thought provoking is watching him try to convince you why certain albums are heavy and/or metal.

The same can be said of Chuck Eddy’s writing, more generally, and this iconoclastic impulse is clearly on display in Rock and Roll Always Forgets. Its 350 pages contain some of the best, most infuriating, provocative, silly, subversive and hilarious bits of music criticism published over the past quarter century (er, make that 30 years).

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