According to Neal Pollack, the critics have ruined rock 'n' roll. On a high horse constructed from shabby cushions, he teeters among empty cough syrup bottles, puddles of vomit, and spilled Makers Mark. "I remember when it was pure, the music and the writing," he writes in his new book Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel (Harper Collins). And you wonder: How can a man who has enjoyed affairs with Wanda Jackson, Joan Baez, Nico, and Patti Smith not be pure rock 'n' roll? Anyone who has made Joan Baez kiss Iggy Pop on the mouth surely breathes the essence of an orgiastic "Gloria" resounding in the filthy Bowery in '78. Dirty dreams and Creem back issues are made of this stuff. And it's all a load of carburetor dung.
For those familiar with Pollack, the Austin-based satirist who often half-jokingly touts himself as the "Greatest Living American Writer," it should come as no surprise that he now claims to have penned the Greatest Rock and Roll Novel, chronicling the Greatest Living Rock Critic and casting himself as the fictional lead--who engages in countless fictional trysts with famous musicians. Never Mind the Pollacks pulses in the same rushing vein that's inside Lester Bangs's left forearm. In the book, theory-thumbing critic Paul St. Pierre retraces the missteps of the recently deceased Pollack, attempting to preserve the celebrity of a man who unfortunately passed away three days before Kurt Cobain's demise. In the process, St. Pierre tracks down nearly everyone who has shared the proverbial frame--or a whiskey, or Nyquil--with the bum: Sam Phillips, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed. Rock history unfolds with hilarity: Pollack's sardonic take on the rock critic will appeal even to those who've never heard of Robert Christgau.
If critics have ruined rock, is Never Mind the genre's epitaph? "Nothing can ruin rock and roll," the real-life Pollack admits, responding to questions via e-mail. "My 'thesis' is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I do think that there are too many rock writers, analyzing rock too much." Of his firsthand experience as a rock writer, he says, "I've done a couple of pieces, one on the Video Music Awards, one on the Rolling Stones, and a piece about dumb loud costume bands"--in other words, not exactly a career. Instead, he's made his reputation by publishing two books, maintaining a widely read web log, nealpollack.com, and writing about the war in Iraq for high-profile rags like Vanity Fair. In the hyperbolic voice of his written works, Pollack claims that he's the greatest living American war correspondent since Geraldo Rivera. Confusingly, the Pollack in my in-box has a nice-guy persona far removed from the arrogant character that comes through in print. So who is the real Neal Pollack, anyway?
When it comes to music, he's just a fan. While his research for the novel involved consultations with Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times and Henry Owings of Chunklet, Pollack still admits, "I'm not particularly interested in reading rock criticism. If I read about a band, I want some very simple facts: What does the band sound like, who are its basic influences, and what kind of a music scene did they emerge from? I don't want theory, I don't want philosophy, I don't want a recounting of the writer's wacky week, and I don't want zealous emotion. Let me know how much the show costs and where it is."
In the case of Pollack's own CD, the Neal Pollack Invasion's soundtrack to Never Mind the Pollacks, that would be $11.00 plus shipping and handling, available at TheTelegraphCompany.com. With Jim Roll and Neal Cleary on backing guitar, the record plays out like punk rock mimicry, the music borrowing from memorable anthems while Pollack fills the lyrics with Mad Lib ruminations. "Memories of Times Square" sounds like "A Walk on the Wild Side"--except that the protagonist is juggling dildos on a street corner. "Coney Island" is pure Blitzkrieg pop, with backing ohs poking through the melody faster than a Whack-a-Mole. The album toes the line between the music of Lou Reed and Richard Hell's New York and that of Johnny Rotten's Britain. However, Pollack refuses the notion that punk was birthed on either waterfront. "The original punks were Iggy and the Stooges. And they're from Michigan. Many years later, Malcolm McLaren hung out in New York and formed his punk-rock ideas there. That's not to say that the Sex Pistols and other London punks didn't put their own weird twist on the music. They certainly did. But for me, it all goes back to the Stooges. They really didn't give a fuck."
Pollack's own personal rock history doesn't run as deep as Iggy Pop's. "I wasn't a rock guy when I started working on this book. I'd never heard a Black Flag song and didn't know what the Minutemen sounded like. If that's pathetic, it's pathetic--but a lot of people still don't know what the Minutemen sound like. I endured some disbelieving looks from rock snobs, but I had many years of catch-up to play. My life as a music lover really began about two years ago, when I started research for the book."
Ultimately, Never Mind is a detailed account of what drives--and sometimes derails--the fans once they've been "consumed by the essence of rock and roll." Pollack himself was swallowed by the spirit after a Dropkick Murphys show in Boston. He explains, "There was an open mic, and I was there, so I took my poetry on stage and started reading. I told the band to play some beat jazz, and they did, and I read. That was nothing new. Then I said, for no discernable reason, 'Play as fast and loud as you can.' They looked at me with total scorn, and just cranked out some horrible punk noise-rock while I attempted to read my poem 'I Wipe My Ass on Your Novel.' The poem ended with me, shirt off, diving into a nonexistent crowd. I was a man transformed."