Rock 'n' Roll Babylon

Pop music is the body cast that gets pushed around, but never loses its shape.

By Sarah Vowell
Published April 17, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Remember the good old days when the biggest mystery surrounding rock 'n' roll
was why on earth it sounded so darn good? When we heard about a little book called "Who Killed Kurt Cobain: The
Mysterious Death of an Icon" (Birch Lane Press, 1998), written by reporters
Ian Halperin and Max Wallace, we got to thinking -- well, our first thought was, of course, Kurt Cobain killed Kurt
Cobain, and why must there be this tasteless advantage-taking of other people's
misery? Our next thought was, après Kurt, le déluge. Are we stating the obvious in recalling all those goofing-around photographs in which the singer posed with gun barrels in his
mouth? What about the now-sick lyrics like "I swear that I don't have a gun"?
Or song titles such as "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die"?

If Cobain's suicide is passing as mystery -- if publishers are ludicrously accusing Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, of hiring an assassin to do away with him, as this book does -- then what will they possibly publish next? What follows is a preview of the books we imagine
ourselves reviewing in the coming months:

"Lilith Fair's Uncivil War" explores the East Coast/West Coast singer-songwriter feud, the origin of which appears to be Lisa Loeb's alleged drive-by
accusation that Jewel "looks fat." Loeb denies the rumors, claiming she
called the blond coffeehouse crooner "phat, as in, like, good." Canadian
girl guru Sarah McLachlan stepped in (doesn't she always?) and denounced such
violence, asking, "Can't we all just get along?" from the set of the video
shoot for her hit calorie-counting single, "Get Twiggy With It."

"Gillian Welch: What Happened?" is an exposé of the Depression-era-throwback's secret addiction to modern conveniences, such as Nutrasweet and
women's suffrage. (The folk singer is known for dressing like the subject of a Dorothea Lange
photograph, singing about sharecropping and sprinkling her live shows with
banter such as "the other night when I was sitting around reading my hymnal.")

For this eloquent survey of a sorta-star's secret shame, investigative
reporter Pete Seether broke into Welch's tarpaper shack, only to find a
shocking number of electrical outlets inside. "She owns a hair dryer, for
heaven's sake," writes Seether. "What's next for this plugged-in Judas? Newfangled popcorn poppers? Battery-powered calculators? Welch's Model-T Ford
pulled into the driveway before I could investigate the kitchen, but I
wouldn't be one bit surprised if there was an out-and-out coffee maker in

In his elegiac "Born to Pun: The 'Weird Al' Yankovic Story Volume I," Dave
Marsh sets out to set the record straight on novelty rock's greatest hero.
Revered by fans who call him "The Sauce" because of his touching version of
"La Bamba" (sportily renamed "Lasagne"), Yankovic's vision has been
scandalously underappreciated by the public at large. Until this book. Marsh
writes, "'Smells Like Nirvana' exploits Yankovic's self-consciousness
constantly. 'I'm just a stinkin' fool,' he said soon after it came out.
'Nothing I can do about it.' And accepting that some of what he did, so
transparently calculated, was going to strike some as pretentious no matter
what he did, he was able to relax to a much greater degree and produce music
that was more spontaneous and had a much greater sense of groove -- and was,
incredibly, even more self-referential than his other records."

"Beck Dyes His Hair and I Can Prove It" is the tell-all of a former Beck
organization employee writing under the pen name "L'Oreal Roadie." The
author, who claims to be breaking a confidentiality agreement with the beloved
Hansen to tell this story, was not responsible for unloading equipment or
tuning guitars like the rest of Hansen's support staff.
L'Oreal Roadie's sole duty involved finding drug stores in all the towns where
Beck would play, scoring a box of L'Oreal Blonde No.12 (also known as "Birch
Forest") and smuggling it backstage. "People always wondered why he spent so
much time in the bathroom," writes the roadie. "But Beck was real good at
hiding his roots."

It is unclear whether the vicious "Celine is dead" rumors fueling Anonymous'
"Who Killed Celine Dion?" were spread by the millions of viewers who saw
Dion's live Oscar night performance or by the millions of listeners who bought
her last album. But we'd like to reassure Anonymous: Celine isn't dead -- she
just sounds like it.

"What You Need to Know About 'The Catcher in the Rye' Conspiracy," is the
group-penned product of the National Organization for Women and We Heart
Buddha, Inc. The two groups have joined forces to inquire into the pro-Holden
Caulfield bias in American public life. According to spokesperson Desiree
Noh, the book that inspired Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley to murder
and attempt the murder of John Lennon and Ronald Reagan, respectively, was not
J.D. Salinger's classic "Catcher in the Rye" but Salinger's other novel
"Franny and Zooey."

"There is no such thing as bad publicity," Noh maintains. "And since 'Franny and Zooey' includes both a sympathetic female protagonist and a defense of Buddhist teachings, the male-dominated Christian right has conspired to promote the other, more Protestant, boy-centric novel."

While Hinckley would not comment, Chapman denies any conspiracy, though he
sticks by "Catcher in the Rye," maintaining that his interest lies not in the
novel's gender bias or religious leanings but because of "the dominant role of
hot chocolate."

Will the real lead singer of the Rolling Stones please stand up? Rumors have
been flying since the publication of Bill Wyman's memoir "I Sang All the Songs,
Wyman, previously known only as the Stones' bassist, asserts that
on the first 83 Rolling Stones albums, he actually sings lead. Mick
Jagger only lip-synched to Wyman's pre-recorded vocals during live
performances. When asked why he didn't step up to the mike onstage, Wyman
said that early on it was thought that Jagger's sexy tenure at the London
School of Economics would sell more tickets. "That, and he looked much better
in cardigan sweaters." Wyman reportedly left the band a few years back, but
no one really noticed.

"Where Have All the Pumpkins Gone: A Lollapalooza Post-Mortem" asks the
musical question, "Who killed Lollapalooza?" On the Q.T. (quickie trade
paperback), this one snoops into the just-announced death of alternative
rock's favorite festival. The corpse is still warm! Whodunit? Prime
suspects include the factionalizing organizers of all those other summer
rockathons: the Irish, the women, those pushy Tibetans. This one's well-researched, but overlooks the most likely suspects: the Ramones.

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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