Short version: I found this column -- from December '74 -- in my closet the other day and it didn't make me cringe too badly, so I thought I'd share it. This also gives me the excuse to include a brand new scan of the original column head; I think you'll find that little illustration is good for a cheap laugh at my expense.
By now you're probably seen Rock Dreams, Guy Peellaert and Nik Cohn's brilliant pictorial fantasy-history of rock-and-roll (Popular Library, $7.95) and you know just how great it is; you know how uncannily true the fantasy situations in which Peelaert has painted the various rock figures ring, and I'm sure you've got you're favorites. I certainly do -- Diana Ross in the back seat of her limousine as she returns to the ghetto she denies ever having lived in; a short-haired Mick Jagger (the final seqment of the Stones sequence) dressed in a smoking jacket, alone in his room and looking for all the world like a pop Dorian Gray; Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty (and where is he now that we need him?) in a rowboat on his way through the Louisiana bayou he conjured up so wonderfully without ever having seen; and a bedraggled and broken Jerry Lee Lewis standing alone in the rain, crying in his beer.
Obviously, a long-winded analysis of the book is unnecessary, even presumptuous; like rock itself, it is in many ways above analysis. But I do have two thoughts that I think are worth mentioning. First of all, some critics have noted that the only place the book's vision falters is in its portrayal of the latter-day heroes -- Bowie, Bolan, and Lou Reed -- who are treated simply as traditional portrait subjects, and have chalked this up to the fact that Peelaert, because of his age, is perhaps a little distanced from these contemporary myth figures. I suspect it's not quite that simple; it's especially instructive to compare his gorgeous representation of the Velvet Underground (with Lou Reed) to his rendering of Reed today, at the same time bearing in mind the music each represents. The former has the capacity to haunt the imagination, while the latter is simply there. Peeleart, it seems, is a much more perceptive rock critic than many of those who do it for a living.
Secondly, the book, great as it is, is in a way quite depressing. Like it or not, it's a retrospective, a summing up; I don't think it could have been done even five years ago, simply because the music and the musicians were much too vital. But in 1974, I find myself much more excited about the book Rock Dreams than about almost any recent rock album, and if that suggests to you what it does to me -- that rock-and-roll as we knew and loved it is indeed as decadent and played out as many have observed -- then it becomes an almost painful experience to finish it. To paraphrase Dave Marsh, I don't want to hang up my rock-and-roll shoes myself, but I'll be damned if I can give you a good reason why I shouldn't. Rock Dreams, for all its power, doesn't give me that reason, and I don't like that at all. But get it anyway.
I don't know if you've noticed, but the rock press is dreadfully out of touch with the real world these days; even the best critics seem to have little or no idea what it is the audience is listening to. For example, take an act like Chicago. The plain fact is that this is probably the biggest band in America; they can sell out major concert halls for a week at a stretch, young girls think they're sexy, and they now have the longest track record for consistent single hits of any group in the country. And yet you rarely read a good word about them. It's not even the Grand Funk phenomenon; the critics don't despite Chicago (except perhaps in private) so much as they ignore them. But the band continues to prosper and broaden its following, manifesting a popularity that is almost frightening because it's such a well-kept secret. Creem will of course never put them on its cover, and the release of "Chicago IX" will elicit nothing but yawns from reviewers everywhere. Nonetheless, when their recent television show was aired (an outing that was, if possible, even schlockier than the Bowie Midnight Special) I can personally attest to the fact that the entire teenage population of Dumont, New Jersey, was off the streets. Meanwhile, the rock press prattles on about glitter, Bryan Ferry, and the return of the pop sensibility. Egad.
Now Chicago puts me to sleep too, in all honesty, but from our reader mail alone it has become clear to me that I'm in a minority. So I talked to Robert Lamm (Chicago's keyboard man) early last September in an attempt to find out what the hell was going on here. In vain. I say in vain becaue Lamm (an extremely charming fella in an all-American sort of way) seemed unwilling or unable to philosophize about his group's importance, although he did have an unswerving confidence in the validity of what he was doing ("All our abums, with perhaps two exceptions, have been artistic successes," he told told me quite firmly). For example, when I asked him why of all the horn bands that had flourished briefly in the late Sixties, playing largely similar material, his had been the only one that survived, he replied "Because they were all on Columbia." Frankly, this little bit of music-biz pragmatism wasn't what I had been groping for, but it's probably true; there are only so many bands you can promote at one time, and Columbia chose Chicago.
Later, when I brought up the subject of their phenomenal singles success, he pooh-poohed it.
"We don't even pick them," he averred. "It's a waste of time."
This, from the singles champs of the Seventies? Surely, I suggested, they must have some idea when they're writing the tunes which are going to be hits?
"We just don't bother about it," he said. "Occasionally, when we finish an album, we hear a bit that makes us say 'Hmm, that might be a single,' but inevitably the record people pick something else. We don't have anything to do with it and we don't want to."
Realizing that I wasn't about get any of the answers I was after, we drifted onto more general matters -- musical background, current preferences -- although I couldn't resist bringing up the subject of their now infamous "with this album, Chicago devotes all its energies to The Revolution" jacket blurb of a few years ago. (Lamm's comment: "In retrospect, that was a little naïve. But sincere.") Finally, I asked him if it ever rankled him that the rock press didn't take them seriously -- did he ever get annoyed that Rolling Stone hadn't sent Truman Capote to follow them around on tour?
"Not at all," he said. "If Truman wants to come by, we'd be glad to see him, but I'm not upset that he hasn't.
"Of course," he added wistfully, "I guess he wouldn't enjoy hanging around with a bunch of ex-jocks." Which may explain why Chicago didn't make it into Rock Dreams.