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Young Bounder Pens Volume

Neal Pollack
Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Novel
(HarperCollins, 2003)

In his exegesis Never Mind the Pollacks, Dr. Neal Pollack, a young bounder of note, has produced an earnestly researched account of certain aspects of American popular music. In particular, he shines the flickering lantern of his wit upon the genre sometimes known as "rock," which I believe remains of some interest to a number of pre-geriatrics.

I say "flickering" in regard to the good doctor’s wit because his volume held me in a grasp most ambiguous. As a long-time scholar of alternate tuning strategies developed for the medieval lute, a subject to which I have developed thirteen books and an unpublished dissertation, I am not always au currant about the musical preoccupations of the young. Nevertheless, Dr. Pollack proves himself to be an able guide, despite some reservations I will litany anon.

As an up-and-coming ethnomusicologist who holds tenure at three major universities, Dr. Pollack has the credentials needed for his ambitious project: to chronicle his personal involvement with what he calls "the largest gathering of talented morons in human history," i.e., "rock."

His level of personal involvement is extraordinary, to say the least. Like the chocolate-toting imbecile boy about whom the movie was made, Dr. Pollack seems to have been everywhere of consequence in the history of his subject. Without exception, he makes contact with the major figures of American popular music at times of unique crisis or particular innovation. For example, in the early 1960s he encounters a pseudo-rural folkways strummer who called himself Bob Dylan, who I believe remains active. Later, he meets a scowling woman named Lou-Lou Reed who performed with an outlandish trio known as The Velvet Underpants. I found that most interesting. In the 1970s, Dr. Pollack intersects with a loudly attenuated man named Ramone, who, like Miss Reed, seems to figure grandly into the cultural trajectory of "rock" as it is set out in these pages.

I would suggest that Dr. Pollack’s timeless omnipresence is a useful quality for any budding ethnomusicologist to emulate, and it serves him quite well. Perhaps this is why he asserts boldly that he possesses "a critical mind so shrewd that it may someday tragically lead me to damnation." It may also be why he announces, "I am a writer! The living incarnation. There is no one else!" Of course, such cocksurity is not unknown to the practiced musicologist. We must appreciate Dr. Pollack’s candor in sharing his febrile intellectual auto-reverie.

However, the author’s somber tone of deep scholarship is undercut by more unorthodox proclamations. On page 33 he confesses to his penchant for drinking cough syrup, that dangerously sweet lady of the afternoon. And on page 2, he breaks with his dry exegesis to exhort his professional rivals to "suck his BUG-fat best-selling dick." I believe that may represent a typo, as one is more likely to hear reference to a "big fat" male appendage in common parlance. If anything, an insect would have a very small organ of this sort, so this expression would only make sense if Dr. Pollack means to describe his member as infinitesimally short yet surprisingly plump. [Further investigation into the nether-realm of Pollack’s editorial contacts reveals that it was indeed a typographical error that warranted correction. Apparently, the word "bug" was hastily replaced by the phrase "lip-synche troglodyte diddle stick" at great printing expense, then again amended to read "stout Publishers-Weekly-titillating wang," before the final version of "big-fat best-selling dick" was rendered into type.]

I was also troubled that Dr. Pollack possesses considerable hubris in pronouncing himself a "best-seller." After all, he is writing for a small independent press called "Harpercollins," with which I am unfamiliar. In the future, I hope he will choose to send his ideas into the world through more practiced hands, such as the house press of the International Lute Society, of which I am a board member in good standing.

Other idiosyncrasies run rampant in the volume. For instance, the author puts stock in a curiously blasphemous acronym, W.W.I.D.?, which stands for "What would Iggy do?" I, too, am a fan of the rotund dreamer of the Sunday comics, but hardly see his relevance for musico-historical deconstruction of the sort being attempted here. It is one of Dr. Pollack’s many curious asides which caused me to rethink my continuing commitment to academic book reviewing.

Thankfully, Dr. Pollack appears well-aware of his shortcomings. In several places in the text, he reveals his tender underbelly as a thinking beast: "My wife had left me. I had an alcohol problem. I was a murdering bastard… I was broke and smelled like shit" (251). Who cannot relate to such feelings? Similarly, on page two, the author frets that he will be regarded as "one trick retardo pony." I find such expressions of foreboding to be touching, though I cannot gainsay their legitimacy.

Another humble caveat for book buyers: some of the song lyrics described in the book seem almost fanciful, as if Dr. Pollack had fabricated them for the amusement of himself or persons under medical supervision. While I levy no such charge against simple numbers such as "Do the Ostrich," whose lyrics include the phonetically rendered "BRAAAAWK BRAAAAWK BRAAAAWK," such an accomplishment would be clever indeed. It would even put him on par with the lyrical creativity of The Paranoids, a little known 1960s ensemble described in a musicological monograph entitled The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).

However, I soon learned that the strange lyrics are attached to actual songs, which I discovered upon consulting the electronic musical miscellany included with the printed book. Unfortunately, what I heard on this "Compact Disc" suggests that a serious error had occurred at the production facility. Having conveyed my machine to the local Bang and Olafson dealer, I was informed by a brusque young woman that the disk in question had been inserted improperly. Soon thereafter, I journeyed homeward and played the CD on its correct side, which yielded slightly improved results. Although the mysterious "Dildo Song" (presumably about some sort of flightless bird) and the unsparing literary critique entitled "I Wipe My Ass on Your Novel" are not my cups of musical tea, my 19-year-old "niece" listened along with me and commented that, "Dr. Pollack is sort of like Weird Al Yankovic, but without the looks." I thought that was quite interesting, as I did not know what it meant, and responded with an angry demand for corporal punishment, which she reluctantly inflicted. Such is the wanton state of affairs that Dr. Pollack seems to foment among his readership.

One word of advice to this Dr. Pollack: it would not hurt to include the occasional hint of levity in even the most lugubrious scholarship. I, for one, have always benefited from a sense of humor as sharp as an eel’s tooth, and I believe Dr. Pollack would be wise to heed my jolly thrust. I ask him to ponder thusly: is not this "rock" a merry art? Is it not more than the dull spiritual forge of societal passions most sticky? Surely, a mirthless air can only unburnish the glistening veneer of scholarship of the sort Dr. Pollack has undertaken so unfetteredly.

To his credit, the solemn Dr. Pollack possesses an entirely uncoagulated writing style. On page 50 he recollects an early Elvis concert at which female fans "pressed their rippling breasts against the pounding stage" — "they felt rock ‘n’ roll slathering their dawn thighs, and they were women born." I have often noted a similar phenomenon in the orchestra seats during my medieval lute ensembles. However, because of Dr. Pollack’s explicit prose, some readers may pause to adjust their clothing while perusing his text.

In places, Never Mind the Pollacks reads almost like a novel, which almost gives credence to the odd subtitle, "A Rock ‘N’ Roll Novel." One wonders if this young scholar has aspirations for something beyond the groves of academe— perhaps a career in show business? No doubt he would make a fine ghost-writer for someone like Merv Griffin, who is currently squiring the young Broadway star Antonio Banderas around town in his golden Miata. Without question, I can see Dr. Pollack in a similarly jaunty mode of transport.

I should not mince my parting words: I believe Dr. Pollack is a scholar with grave potential, some of it untapped. "Human existence is pitiful and meaningless," he explains helpfully. "All we can do is chronicle it with agonized mockery." To which I would reply, "Pip pip!" I would then rouse him from his fetid doldrums with a feisty rump waggle, before reminding him that the soul flies like a winged creature of multi-hued plumage straight up the rainbow of song and into the honeyed firmament of artistic transcendence. All musicologists know this.

With such positivity in mind, I believe he could bring a more constructive attitude toward his future scholarship. Perhaps his future projects will avoid references to "bug-fat dicks" and "ass-wiping," which are more suited to low-brow periodicals such as Newsweek or Juggs. Then, when he exhorts his reader with a stirring declaration of "Up yours, wadbutts!" (2), he or she will be primed to respond, "Up mine? Up mine, indeed." Serious readers of musicological scholarship can only hope.


Randolph Lewis


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2003

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