"Stranded" poses to 20 writers the question of which rock 'n' roll record they would take to a desert island. This collection of their answers is edited by Greil Marcus, a long-time rock critic, and author of "Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music," an ambitious, broadbased study.
In his introduction to "Stranded," Marcus discusses the enormous expansion of rock's audience over the past 10 years and the fragmentation of that audience. But isolated enjoyment needn't be a bad thing, he theorized, if it allows the listener to view the entire, unobstructed rock 'n' roll spectrum and to evaluate the music independently, without the influence of "shared obsession."
Marcus asserts that artists have become "figures with whom one can carry on a long-distance, perhaps lifelong, dialogue." That's true of most reviewers (and fans); indeed, many of the book's contributions are the products of years of evolving thought about a performer's work. Each chapter of Marcus' book is thoughtful, superbly focused, precisely written. There exist very few comparable efforts. We need more.
Nick Tosches supplies the prologue; his smug sexism is as irritating as his implicit premise is exact; that one's enthusiasm for certain rock songs is inextricably bound to one's personal circumstances at any given time; thus one's private life must figure in one's criticism. Ellen Willis contributes a rather dialectical analysis of the Velvet Underground.
Perceptive appraisals are submitted as well by people who don't write rock criticism for a living. MITT professor Langdon Winner's sober essay on the esoteric Captain Beefheart specifies an album that constructs its own thought systems.
Paul Nelson's "The Pretender" is disappointing because it's largely a reworking of his 1976 Rolling Stone cover story on Jackson Browne. Nevertheless, Nelson's reading is cogent and I disagree with few of his claims. Jackson Browne is my own desert island choice; the dual metaphors of The Road and The Sky -- denoting his searching and aspirations -- interwoven throughout his richly complex work remain for me more compelling than anything else in rock.
Dave Marsh could have pulled out all the stops to write a profound appreciation, but instead, delightfully, he assembles a fictitious anthology, "Onan's Greatest Hits," based on his theory of what all those adolescent sex songs are really about.
While no contribution to "Stranded" is technically flawed, one can quibble about minor points. John Rockwell correctly demonstrates that Linda Ronstadt is capable of expressing subtlety and tension in her songs, but his inclusion of an opera-based sexual politics seems gratuitous. Tom Carson's vaguely abrasive piece on the Ramones erects a specious dichotomy, dismissing the Eagles as "synthetic substitutes." I, for instance, love the Ramones' urban materialism and I find the Eagles conceptually intriguing. Surely the exploration of two such dissimilar esthetics is a valid and necessary function of rock criticism. Finally, Ed Wards's disgruntled chapter -- active reviewer Ward is tired of the overanalysis he thinks all pop music now receives -- finishes the essays oddly and leaves a sour taste in the reader's mouth.
Greil Marcus' books are easier to take than his journalism, in which he practices a seemingly intentional provocation of the reader which can be grating. Marcus' long discography, which concludes "Stranded," is his attempt to capsulize 30 years of rock and roll's best moments. Marcus grapples with history (and he knows it) as rock and societal currents mirror each other. It's a gem of compression: Marcus' knowledge of the music is incisive and succinct; his dedication to it is unceasing.
But "Stranded" is about more than musical entertainment. Ultimately, it's about rock 'n' roll as a way of life, as salvation. What Greil Marcus has called, in a marvelous phrase, hearing one's life "redeemed on the radio." What Ariel Swartley declares in her essay: "All I want is for a voice to come out of the wilderness and the stereo crackle in flames like the burning bush. I don't want to have to ask 'Are you talking to me?' I want to know." Or, what Jackson Browne sings on his first album, "Everyone must have some thought/that's going to pull them through/Somehow." We're lucky enough to share 21 versions of that thought in "Stranded."