But Is It Garbage? The Theme of Trash in Rock and Roll Criticism

Steven Hamelman. Popular Music and Society. Volume 26, Issue 2. June 2003.

We reap what we sow, and if we’re filling our kids’ heads with this garbage … what comes out is what you put in. — (1999, “Marilyn Manson Postpones Concerts: Claims Respect for Victims, But Denies Blame.” The Repository 29 Apr.)

Millions and Millions Trashed

The criticism of rock and roll is a well-documented body of work. Upon its appearance in the mid-1950s, this new “teen” music was subjected to attacks from the obvious sources: ministers, politicians, parents, teachers, promoters, and even entertainers (like jazz musicians or Tin Pan Alley songbirds) who felt threatened or disgusted by what they heard. Although rock had become mainstream by the early 1970s, it continued to arouse resistance and to elicit reproach-and continues, indeed, to this day. Anyone wishing to learn more about the backlash against rock and roll can get a crash course by reading Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock’n’Roll, a fine study of this theme by Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave published in 1988.

In my approach to the criticism of rock music, I diverge from previous scholarship in three important ways. First, I focus exclusively on the concept of waste-or its synonyms garbage, trash, debris, and so on-and how it pervades rock commentary. Second, I look at the trashing of rock from the inside, not the outside, showing that some of rock’s harshest critics function in the rock press. Finally, I explain how the metaphor of trash is volatile and multivalent. That is, in the realm of rock and roll, evidence of garbage, trash, and waste isn’t always meant to convey low quality. Implicit in my thesis is the idea that rock music reflects a culture suffocating on its own waste.

Specifically, American civilization (and the West in general) is predicated on an ethos of disposability. The Environmental Protection Agency’s figures for 1996 conclude that American “residents, businesses, and institutions produced more than 209 million tons of [municipal solid waste], which is approximately 4.3 pounds of waste per person per day.” In 1999, G. W. Dickerson reported that “the average American generates approximately 4.5 pounds of garbage per day for a total of 196 million tons of trash per year, most of which ends up in landfills” (166). From discarded tires (300 million annually) to unsold magazines (40 million tons of paper monthly), and from retired computers (20 million a year) to empty plastic bottles (2.5 million an hour), the catalog of waste in the United States is inconceivably vast.

In her “social history” of trash, Susan Strasser identifies the core of the problem of disposability in the United States:

The new [post-war] consumer culture changed ideas about throwing things away, creating a way of life that incorporated technological advances, organizational changes, and new perspectives, a lifestyle that linked products made for one-time use, municipal trash collection, and the association of traditional reuse and recycling with poverty and backwardness. Packaging taught people the throwaway habit, and new ideals of cleanliness emphasized swift and complete disposal. Paper cups, towels, and straws in public places, and Kleenex and commercial toilet paper at home, reinforced that habit. Nor could the new throwaways serve as fuel in houses with radiators and gas furnaces; they went in the trash, along with the lightbulbs. (Strasser 199-200)

Since the 1950s, the “one-way” flow described by Strasser is perpetuated by a consumer ideology where disposability has been presented as a virtue. This flow means that waste products are returned to landfills, toxic dumps, and other treatment centers without nourishing the ecosystem from which the raw materials that led to this waste were extracted in the first place (Strasser 14-15). As we swim in consumer goods, we drown in the trash that the consumption of them necessitates.

In concrete terms, the one-way flow principle relates to rock and roll insofar as this music is inseparable from CDs packaged in wasteful “jewel boxes.” In other words, rock is more than just the soundtrack of modern life playing in our heads, more than just an abstraction or pleasant diversion. As plastic objects manufactured and distributed by the millions, rock and roll CDs and their containers are implicated in the process of waste disposal. How many millions? In the year 2000, global sales of full-length CDs surpassed 800 million units; singles totaled about 40 million units (“First-half”). In the last twenty years, billions of CDs have been manufactured. The pleasure derived from rock and roll music can prevent even its greenest fans from gauging the scope of its materiality, thus its disposability, making buyers forget that to acquire CDs is to contribute to a crisis of trash-literally.

Not all the discs that reach warehouses and store shelves are sold. The recording industry must contend with the millions of jewel boxes and CDs that are annually returned to distributors. Billboard reported in 1993 that a fraction of these ended up at a processor in Atlanta, which was taking in 100,000 pounds of scrap discs per month. Today, the industry is engaged in finding “methods of reducing landfill waste from rejected or returned discs and jewel boxes … at a number of manufacturing facilities” in Europe and the United States (Gillen 12). The recycled remains are used in the production of disc cases, disc trays, and-an item unrelated to music-asphalt.

Given these numbers, it’s inevitable that signs of trash should permeate rock lyrics, rock criticism, and the lives of rock musicians. Rock and roll is the dominant art form and thus mirror of a throwaway society. Consistent with this fact, when one listens to rock music, two questions invariably arise: Is it garbage-disposable, bad? Or is it art-durable, good? The answer to each question can be, and often is, “Yes.” Whereas logicians might insist on the mutual exclusiveness of such a proposition, students of rock and roll see no fallacy at all.

For instance, at least one professional listener, Frank Zappa, has claimed that the Shaggs are greater than the Beatles; many others have been content simply to applaud this band’s greatness. That few people have heard, or heard of, the Shaggs, or that the Shaggs can’t sing in tune, can’t play in tune (or play at all), can’t write a melody, and can’t put together records like Rubber Soul or A Hard Day’s Night doesn’t necessarily render the judgment that the Shaggs are greater than the Beatles, untenable, or perverse. A leading expert on “outsider music,” Irwin Chuswid, suggests that the Shaggs are marvelous despite and because of the “[h]acked-at chords, missed downbeats, out-of-socket transitions, blown accents, and accidental convergences” (1-2) immortalized on Philosophy of the World. The Shaggs are fantastically good at being spellbindingly bad, and their one album places them apart from their peers. The Shaggs exemplify garbage as art. And, like the Beatles, the Shaggs are incomparable.

What makes the Beatles/Shaggs comparison possible is that the vitality of rock and roll, which vacillates between silliness and gravity, ribaldry and innocence, and anguish and effervescence, pivots on the push-pull forces of disposability and durability. The best rock simultaneously represents a synthesis of, and a tension between, evanescent junk and lasting beauty. The worst rock is just garbage.

Another case in point: that Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell rate Billy Joel “the worst rock and roller of all time” (249) doesn’t alter the fact that Joel’s multiplatinum sales have secured him a spot in the stratosphere of rock and roll (some would say “pop”) superstars and that many of his songs are irresistibly hummable and thought-provoking. In other words, that the works of Billy Joel, a piano virtuoso and a master of songwriting with three greatest hits albums under his belt, strike some listeners as garbage may partially explain why The Stranger and Joel’s other albums are addictive to the millions of other people who view him as a demigod, and as such gobble up his records and concert tickets. One could argue the not original idea that this over-the-top performer inspires such immense popularity precisely because he’s so good at being bad and that the masses cannot now nor ever have been able to tell the difference between quality and trash. Rather than belaboring this platitude and the related point that esthetic absolutes don’t and never did exist, I wish to shift the focus away from subjectivity as an end unto itself in order to study the trope of garbage, waste, junk, and trash vis-à-vis the meaning, content, and quality of rock music. Doing this will teach us that the concept of trash in rock music is equally capable of undermining and reaffirming conventional ideas of excellence or inferiority.

Rock Critics and Trash

The epithet “trash” is often used to condemn works of entertainment or art in one sweeping word. In popular literature, for example, we have all heard people apologize for reading novels by Dean Koontz, Danielle Steele, or even an author as well-loved and accomplished as Steven King. Such novelists specialize, so the argument goes, in the composition of hypnotic potboilers that add up to little more than trash. Their popularity presupposes their trashiness. One retailer of remainders, Daedalus Books, makes sure their image isn’t tainted by such trash. A recent advertisement in The New Yorker boasts, “No Trashy Titles: We offer an incredible selection of top quality books. We don’t sell trash.” Instead, Daedalus sells literature that the masses can’t appreciate and won’t buy (www.daedalusbooks.com).

An age-specific musical form (“Hope I die before I get old”) and a cultural phenomenon that blurs lines between the principles of longevity (as in canons and high art) and ephemerality (as in hasbeens and pop art), rock music relies on paradox as a vital principle. Some of the standouts of the genre last because in some key technical way(s) they’re as worthless as household garbage. “96 Tears” and the Mysterians and “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen are classic examples. At the same time, the worst rock music vanishes without a trace because it stinks. And what about those masterpieces celebrated for flawless design, smooth execution, and rich content? Commentary about rock and roll must account for the finished beauty of albums like Odelay, Dark Side of the Moon, Forever Changes, and Born to Run, and singles like “MacArthur Park” and “Good Vibrations,” all highly produced recordings. Commentary must also explain the appeal of rough-hewn albums like Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Tonight’s the Night, and Fun House, and songs like “Sister Ray” and “A Sailor’s Life,” all one-off productions by performers who cloud distinctions between amateur and master. Bridging the two extremes of the polished and the raw is the trope of trash.

One rock and roll writer for whom trash, garbage, and other forms of waste are indispensable terms of criticism is Richard Meltzer. A stream of trash and excrement flows through his essays and reviews. In “A Very Important Person,” Meltzer junks Inside Bert Sommer by Bert Sommer, who performed on the opening day-“pass-the-trash day”-of the Woodstock Festival. Going for the kill, Meltzer asks, “What’s the worst thing on the disc? They’re all the worst!” (76). In “D for the Dead,” Meltzer whines that the Grateful Dead circa 1971 sounded like

the Kingston Trio. Like their “Truckin'” is nothing if not the Kingston Trio version of “Dancin’ in the Streets,” never one of their best but at least one of their ones. This wasn’t one of their ones, it wasn’t them. But it was. It was them and they had to take the rap for their own swill. (Meltzer “D” 109)

More aggressively, Meltzer leads off a piece on John Lennon, dated 1973, with trash flying:

John Lennon continues to waste his time being a waste of time in N.Y.C. … [He and Yoko] stunk up the city with their beef & kidney pies for far (far far far) too long…. Like at the Xmas party Mercury threw in ’72…. Nothing was edible on account of proximity to the limey fish (smells like stuff a dying cat wouldn’t eat out of a garbage can) but now we can breathe easier with the Lennon-Onos headed back to the United Kingdom where they belong. (Meltzer “Who Sez” 186)

Their departure, Meltzer happily reports, will leave local talent the chance to put out some “good shit” (“Who Sez” 186). Presumably, the Lennons put out bad shit.

Ten years later, now eyeing rock videos in an article titled “Merde … Turd … Vomit,” three variations on waste products as related to human beings, Meltzer ponders Music Television’s impact on the youngsters who would eventually be labeled the deadbeats of Generation X: “Could be a lie but so far MTV’s apparently getting sizable nos. of asskids to again start purchasing vinyl garbage in nos. commensurate with what radio used t’ be able t’ generate.” Meltzer is irritated that the music being shilled through videos is worthless, “it no longer MATTERING that same [MTV’s programming] sucks scrotum poop off a dead rat’s mother. (I.e., make a rock vid of scrotum poop pop POO and asskids will consume it f’r breakfast)” (387). Meltzer extends the garbage trope to himself, suspecting that Robert Christgau, his editor at the Village Voice, considered him “anti-intellectual trash! scum!-and a college graduate yet-akin to being a Commie or a junkie (or a rock and roller) in those dark, dark (oooh) Eisenhower ’50s” (245). In Meltzer’s hands, the trash trope, like the rock and roll it describes, is remarkable for the imaginative uses to which it can be put.

Meltzer’s only equal in the flamboyant trashing of rock music and its stars was Lester Bangs, who died, both a rock and roll and an actual junkie weakened by years of alcohol and substance abuse, at the age of 33 in 1982. In an essay on the Count Five of “Psychotic Reaction” fame, Bangs upends the manifest meaning of trash:

It wasn’t until much later, drowning in the kitschvats of Elton John and James Taylor, that I finally came to realize that grossness was the truest criterion for rock ‘n’ roll, the cruder the clang and grind the more fun and longer listened-to the album’d be. (Bangs “Psychotic” 10)

Bangs worshipped the Stooges, who, he claimed, as if conferring a mark of distinction on their achievement, were “not for the ages-nothing created now is” (“Of Pop” 32). As masters of disposability they were on the high road to mastering the rock idiom: “Ig [of the Stooges] writes some of the best throwaway lines in rock, meaning some of the best lines in rock, which is basically a music meant to be tossed over the shoulder and off the wall” (“Of Pop” 39). Trash could be a virtue after all.

But the specter of garbage as a vice also worried Bangs, who predicted in 1970:

I believe that real rock ‘n’ roll may be on the way out, just like adolescence as a relatively innocent transitional period is on the way out. What we will have instead is a small island of new free music surrounded … by a vast sargasso sea of absolute garbage. (“Of Pop” 46)

Towards the end, Bangs, his standard still held high like Tashtego’s flag over the sinking Pequod, lamented “all the wretched excess that’s being marketed disguised as its diametrical opposite” and the “worthless swill” to which entertainment has been reduced (“Otis” 296). The disappointment caused by the failure of post-1950s rock and roll to live up to its initial promise and glorious past drove men like Bangs and Meltzer to extreme applications of rhetorical trash. No one smeared the music they loved (and hated) better than they did as the only way of putting what rock had become where it belonged: into a rhetorical dumpster heaped and reeking with vinyl, digital, and celluloid garbage.

And yet, clearly, for Bangs garbage was a fluid signifier. Iggy and the Stooges are good garbage, Elton John and James Taylor are bad garbage. Because he understands rock and roll, Meltzer understands this seeming contradiction. His writings in the Village Voice, he concedes, are indeed “claptrap,” “shit,” “garbage,” and “crap,” but in no way does this mean they’re bad: “Hey, I’m not saying this junk isn’t ‘good’-it’s veryveryverygood” (“My Inane” 243). It’s good because it’s innovative, provocative, obscene, obnoxious, shocking, smart, and sui generis, reflecting the soul of the music itself.

In rock and roll, as in Richard Meltzer’s writings, cultivating a trashy attitude and sound can be seen as a desirable artistic goal. The Litter, remembered for their mid-1960s prepunk ditty “Action Woman,” figured out this paradox and so developed a strategy to express it. They selected “a name to reflect their dirty, trashy image” and then sought to become the “loudest, meanest band in the area” (Stax 49). In his introduction to the four-disc Nuggets compilation, which includes “Action Woman,” Greg Shaw touches upon the polarities of greatness and garbage: “What we have here is the quintessence of what could, with justification (and a brief disclaimer or two), be called the coolest period in rock and roll’s long history” (17). Rounded up on Nuggets are singles by the Brogues, the Chocolate Watch Band, the Night Crawlers, the Hombres, the Leaves, the Barbarians, the Brigands, the Standells, the Remains, and a hundred more nonhousehold names-all-American bands who, though for the most part laboring in regional obscurity, added at least one, sometimes three or four, trash-classics to the rock canon. “But for every work of genius,” Shaw advises, “there were a hundred cases of misguided, pompous, overwrought malarkey, which eventually brought garage punk to a grinding halt” (21). The connoisseur of rock and roll is, like an enologist judging two goblets of French vintage, able to tell why “Run, Run, Run” by the Third Rail should be on Nuggets while “She’s Gone” by the Dovers shouldn’t (their “What Am I Going to Do” makes the cut instead). The metaphor of discrimination that best works for rock, however, isn’t something aromatic and tasteful like French burgundy selected from the cellars of the Four Seasons to please the finest palette, but something seamy and disposable like American “malarkey” or garbage recorded at a local studio in one take by four scruffy teenagers in Minnesota or Oregon in 1966.

The rock biographer Philip Norman also understands the difference between good and bad garbage: “Teenagers [during the 1950s] bought records to dance to, not listen to, which explains why so many primal rock ‘n’ roll classics, if not pure gibberish, were simple declarations of how mind-explodingly wonderful the music itself was” (112). Gibberish often characterizes classic rock tracks. Employing a bold oxymoron, Norman realizes that beauty and junk (“gibberish”) can coexist in the rock milieu: “For hardcore rock ‘n’ roll fans, [The Girl Can’t Help It]’s highlight was [Gene] Vincent performing a piece of sublime gibberish called ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula'” (119). “Sublime” is an adjective typically used to describe natural wonders like the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, or towering works of art like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or Michelangelo’s David. Norman coopts the word for a vulgar art form because he knows that rock music untouched by sublime nonsense is unimaginable. Needless to say, he won’t be one to apologize for rock’s vulgarity.

Writing about a rock archetype, Mike Stax finds the “timeless appeal” of the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” to lie “in the sloppy spontaneity of the performance…. [It] exemplifies the perfection of imperfection; a simple, almost retarded three-note riff; slamming, lead-foot drumbeat; and lyrics so slurred and nonsensical that some lines were interpreted as pornographic” (78). Ira Robbins congratulates the band Weezer for perfecting “the art of pissing on itself, both embodying and renouncing the ethos of pop in one sly strum.” Their eponymous album “is something of a ’90s marker, a deliciously entertaining piece of crap that floats in the punchbowl like a rare jewel” (807). And regarding the 1954 smash hit “Sh-Boom” by the Chords (1954), James Miller remarks that it “sounded like gibberish, but the song had a crazy bounce and it felt great.” Then the gibberish degenerated: their next release was “a contrived piece of junk called ‘Zippity Zum,'” which “flopped” (77, 78). In rock and roll music, imperfection can be perfect, crap can resemble a jewel, and gibberish can ensure a song’s immortality or sink it instantly into oblivion.

Whereas it’s clear that in their rhapsodic remarks on rock and roll, people like Philip Norman and Lester Bangs often bend the literal meaning of trash and its variants, other critics are more consistent in their use of garbage as a term of contempt. For such writers, good garbage remains a contradiction in terms.

For example, contributors to the original edition of Marsh and Swenson’s The Rolling Stone Record Guide often toss garbage into the faces of recording artists. A Donny Osmond long-play is deep-sixed for being “[w]ell-crafted garbage-trash is too elevated a description” (281), an example of how metaphors of garbage can be fine-tuned and hierarchized. “Garbage redeemed slightly by success” (280) is the verdict, which history has sealed, on Tony Orlando’s oeuvre. A long-forgotten band named Ozo released an album of “[p]ost-psychedelic garbage” (282), while a Jim Stafford disc included his sole hit “along with gallons of other garbage” (366). “Gallons” connotes fluid, meaning that garbage comes in both solid and liquid form, another example of the term’s multivalence. David Cassidy’s Home Is Where the Heart Is provokes this jibe: “As a teenage TV rage, Cassidy spewed out mewly crap. This solo LP (his second) attempts to float above that image, but it’s strictly a lead zeppelin” (March and Swenson 67). Taken as a whole, these trashy epithets are meant not only to alert readers to the dangers inherent in buying David Cassidy albums, but also to amuse those readers who had never given thought to such a purchase in the first place.

An irony in regard to these critiques is that some are written by Dave Marsh, who coedited the Guide. Years later, in his book-length study of “Louie Louie,” one of rock’s handful of Ur-texts, Marsh demonstrates that trash is more complicated than that. “Louie Louie,” he declares, is primitive, half-baked, unhip, unchic, and nonsensical, yet nonetheless remains timeless, “a genuinely transcendent object.” Sure, it’s a “ridiculous, damnable piece of trash” (Marsh 5, 200), but it demands a book to explicate its brilliance sufficiently.

In the same vein, the best that Roy Carr and Mick Farren can say about Elvis’s single “Clean Up Your Own Backyard” from the soundtrack The Trouble with Girls is that it “may have been somewhat superior to the sheer rubbish Elvis had crooned in recent movies, but it was still a pale shadow of most of the material this man was now laying down in the studios” (130). Pairing Elvis Presley and trash is as natural as pairing Elvis Presley and Cadillacs. Because Elvis is the King of Rock and thus the King of America, he’s also the King of the Wasteland. No one threw away more than Elvis did, which is why mating Elvis with trash comes so naturally, feels so right, and makes us, oddly enough, more likely to keep him up there on rock and roll’s tallest pedestal. Strangely, Elvis’s sublime prodigality makes him less distant, less regal, more recognizable, and more human; it brings us closer to him and to the spirit of America. Trashiness humanizes this fantastic caricature flouncing his cape on the stages of Las Vegas or immuring himself in a pharmacy-cum-armory-cum-bedroom in Graceland. The pathos of rock’s greatest tragedy lies in the discrepancy between promise and abdication, fulfillment and self-destruction, epic acquisition and prodigious disposability. In Dead Elvis, Greil Marcus points out the inevitable trajectory in Elvis’s career and life from drugs to waste. There was “dope, Herculean quantities of it; then sex, orgies, and homemade pornographic videos piled upon fetishes, phobias, and neurotic dysfunction; then violence, a much thinner theme, but including accounts of cruelty, gunfever, and gunplay; then fat, then waste” (Marcus 48). More than anything else, there was for years just Elvis, always the King, and his wasted genius, his discarded life.

Marcus often defaults to the trope of trash in accounting for and justifying the King’s persona, his brilliance as an artist, and his tragic decline. Reacting to Peter Gurlanick’s celebration of performers who can relate to, and therefore reach, their audiences, Marcus argues, “The values that power such a social fact are honesty, sincerity, refusal of ambiguity, loyalty between performer and audience, stoicism, endurance, and dignity-the antithesis of pop trash, sensationalism, irony, persona, frivolousness, or outrage” (64). Marcus implies that few artists in the pop or rock realm have been able to rise above the genre’s inherent trashiness. I believe none can.

Trash-the word haunts all histories of Elvis Presley. All commentators have to grapple with it. Marcus tries to defend Elvis’s heritage as well as his domestic style. He concedes that tourists to Graceland “have returned with one word to describe what they saw: Tacky/ Tacky, garish, tasteless-words others translate as white trash.” Nonetheless, Marcus insists that “[tjhere is not a hint of this in [William] Eggleston’s photographs” of the mansion (71). Marcus’s inconsistencies show that he labors gamely, but in vain, to keep Elvis clean, as if Elvis had ever been clean or were better off clean. This effort leads to a sentence of extraordinary defensiveness:

Elvis as white trash … will only take you so far into the mystery of why it has been so easy to deflect Elvis’s music away from the realm where the music of Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Prince, or even Jim Morrison takes on the aura of art, and thus invites thought. (192-93)

This is a prolix way of saying that Elvis’s roots have given snobs reason to patronize or tolerate his mysterious appeal.

Regarding the “white trash” reference, I would mention contra Marcus’s claim that we should be grateful for Elvis’s inherent trashiness, if indeed it is this quality above all others that makes it difficult for us to honor his oeuvre with the word “art” or to applaud his ability to make us “think.” An aura of “white trash” surrounds Elvis because he’s at the top of the pile; he rules the heap. Trash is neither a coincidence nor a sign of failure. Quite the opposite: it signifies royalty. Accusations of trash don’t signify cheap shots at the King’s heritage or his permanent reign. Or, if they do, they fall flat before reaching their target. Arguably, it is Marcus, the hagiographer, who for once in his outstanding body of work sounds defensive; he can’t accept Elvis’s trashiness. My interest in Marcus, however, lies neither in the validity nor tenuousness of his judgments but rather in his struggle with the image of waste and trash in his chronicle of a dead king.

Attacking Bob Dylan, another icon, Guterman and O’Donnell cite Self-Portrait as the first of “twenty ideas that Dylan should have thrown into the garbage” (101). The existence of nineteen other such ideas suggests that Dylan’s fame doesn’t preclude trashy aspects marring his career. These two writers argue that the standards wrapped up in the concept of trash involve, first, an artist’s stature (he or she must be “great”) and, second, his approval of the release being trashed. Thus, “a miserable record by a great performer (say, Bob Dylan) is far more interesting than the latest garbage installment from a hack (say, Neil Diamond)” (11). The twist here lies in the theory that, given an artist like Dylan’s obvious stature and his concession to lapses in quality (e.g., Doivn in the Groove, Hard Rain, Self-Portrait), audiences aren’t indifferent to the worst records. If bad enough, say Guterman and O’Donnell, garbage can be interesting, and that means it can be something good. In this context, “interesting” means a recording is so unlistenable that it’s enjoyable to listen to it. It resembles a garbage bag containing items that one just can’t seem to throw away.

The cover of Guterman and O’Donnell’s book shows a metal trash can brimming with 45s and CDs. This picture prepares the reader for lots of trash-related sniping, such as when they smear Sammy Hagar as a “bottom-of-the-barrel rock lyricist” (12) and, back to Dylan, sneer that “even a garbage dump full of A. J. Webermans couldn’t explain away the hatred that absorbs Dylan on Live at Budokan” (177). The phrase “cosmic sludge” (193), referring to Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe’s eponymous album in 1989, coins another clever expression on how rock music dumps trash in its audience’s lap.

Like Guterman and O’Donnell, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons sling garbage as if no other term could begin to convey their disgust with the punk movement of the mid-’70s. ‘The Boy Looked at Johnny’: The Obituary of Rock’n’roll is laced with vitriol and splattered with trash. Contrary to legend, there’s nothing romantic about punk’s “golden age.” The overrated artists and the troops of pack-mentality fans were knee-deep in garbage, dreck, debris, and junk.

The year is 1977, the band is the Clash. In Burchill’s and Parsons’s pithy prose, the band’s fans possessed “the passion of persecuted religious dissidents-posing at the bar with obsessive dedication, pogoing like epileptic dervishes to the onstage acts pumping out endless three-chord wastelands” (45). In the Roxy, a club famous for breaking the biggest acts, mayhem ruled, so that only “when a handful of human dregs lingered, kicking at the lager can scrap-heap, did the workshy bouncers make their presence felt” (45). The rock setting is conducive to the accumulation of trash, and fans are transformed into the trash they generate.

In an ad hominem assault, Burchill and Parsons lay waste the American band Television, considered one of the most accessible and melodic punk bands:

They were so esoteric that they inevitably attracted ex-Roxy Music chromedome dilettante Brian Eno, who became a Dada-figure for the band and tried to capture their tortured genes on tape. However, the band lost something in tape-translation-namely [leader Tom] Verlaine’s parade of facial grimaces serving to portray the inner torments of French Symbolist as fish-fingered axe-hero. Verlaine subsequently began to slur his words when singing, keeping his cherished lyrics locked in an indecipherable vault and thereby preventing the other poets on his block from plagiarising his precious prose. (Burchill and Parsons 60)

Marquee Moon, Television’s first album (it ranked a respectable number 83 on VH1’s 2001 best-of poll [“One Hundred”]), did well critically only because it was “salivated upon by the Sixties debris of a music press” (61). Burchill and Parsons object that Marquee Moon “recalled nothing so much as fledgling Byrds had they aimed for a date with Salvador Dali rather than the Top Ten” and that “Verlaine came across as an acid-babbling Edward Lear who had worn out a crateful of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Their final word on Television: “Their [second and] last album, ‘Adventure,’ stinks” (61). Like garbage.

A poll in the May 2001 issue of Spin magazine (“The 50 Most Essential Punk Records”) cites the Ramones’ debut album as the greatest punk album of all time. Yet Burchill and Parsons annihilate this New York group in a passage that sums up the craft of critical trashing, savage and illuminating at the same time. The band members had served “perfect apprenticeships” in “no hope Heavy Metal hack-bands”:

The stage-brother’s [sic] roll-call was spot-blitzed shaded short-ass Tommy “Pox Chops” Ramone on drums and Valderma; moon-featured round-shouldered Quasimodo-hunchbacked Johnny “Guitar” Ramone; one of Mother Nature’s most tragic mistakes on vocals Joey “Who’s A Pretty Boy Then?” Ramone, a decrepit inferno crippled with infirmities; and blank bassist Dee Dee “Stands For Dead and Dumb” Ramone, pig-eyed, pea-brained and fitting in perfectly with his brothers. (Burchill and Parsons 66)

In our revisionist era, these Ramones are ideal candidates for the punk crown. But to Burchill and Parsons, who observed all the bands they lacerated, such characters are human garbage capable only of cranking out musical junk.

Burchill and Parsons are important critics not merely because they assassinate rock characters better than anyone else, turning phrase after phrase of poignant vitriol and sardonic debunking; not because they perceive that rock and roll is immersed in trash and poisoned by “junk” (they continually attack heroin-users); and not because they write about rock and roll with a conviction that withers everyone who can’t approach their standards of honesty and excellence. It’s because Burchill and Parsons see the full sociological picture of rock and express that in a nutshell that makes the pair’s study of punk so vital. In a startling apothegm, they distill the differences between English and American punk music-“English punk bands want to be the best-American punk bands want to be the richest” (59)-and follow this insight with an equally stunning insight that uses the trash trope in a new way. A reference to dietary disposability triggers an exposé of the trashy symbiosis of rock music and American culture:

American kids get everything on a plate, especially their recreation. After a decade of munching trash-food from foil plates while staring at their interminable Technicolor television brain-candy, pre-teen kids at Aerosmith, Kiss and Queen concerts are equipped for nothing more strenuous … than being able to focus on the stage. The gross majority of these audiences haul their asses off of a comfy air-conditioned couch and into a giant sports-stadium for the technoflash visual rather than the multi-decibel audio experience…. [Tjhey’re there purely to be bludgeoned into the merciful cosmic oblivion of misplaced and mushy mysticism. This stupid state of non-being is achieved by partaking of America’s own inimitable cocktail of tranquillisers [and] an awesome artificial Aurora Borealis electronically created by a blinding light-show of vivid laser-beams. (Burchill and Parsons 66)

Punk and hard rock is the musical counterpart of TV dinners served up on aluminum trays-efficient, nonnutritious, tasteless, and eminently disposable.

Onward Burchill and Parsons tramp, machetes swooping, through the jungle of clichés and homilies, the cant and the myths that have grown up around rock music and thereby strangled a clear approach to it. From every angle, rock is junk and punk is trash-its critics, the habits and diets it engenders or prolongs, its “artists” (half of whom are junkies or drunks), and its albums, mostly the dreck, drivel, and debris of the wasted Western world.

Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s history of ’70s punk rock, with an emphasis on the American scene based in New York City, is told in the form of interviews. In its narrative immediacy and in the violence and horror that eyewitnesses and participants are able to convey, this oral history surpasses its English counterpart as chronicled by Burchill and Parsons. This means, however, that the McNeil-McCain version lacks the single scathing point of view that Burchill and Parsons cultivate. Naturally, Please Kill Me is an exercise in paradox. Both exhilarating and exhausting, titillating and tragic, impressively authoritative and merely anecdotal, Please Kill Me tells the story of suicidal, trashy, drinkinspired, and drug-depressed performers, managers, groupies, and assorted hangers-on. Punk, trashiest of rock genres, gave them a reason to live; punk also crippled or killed them.

References to garbage in the book are abundant because punk rockers celebrate trash and self-consciously derive inspiration from a “trash this” attitude.5 Moreover, since punk rockers and punk fans are known, believe it or not, to be discriminating, the trope of trash serves them better than any other when assessing the music. To them punk rock shouldn’t be reviled for being a sub-subgenre of chaos and dissonance, sloppy three-chord early Stones/Kinks rip-offs and junk-slurred vocals. Within this realm of belligerent and feral amateurism, a standard of excellence reigns. Punk lovers can explain why the early Ramones are superior to the late Ramones, where Iggy’s canon goes astray, why the Dead Kennedys are punk saviors, why So Alone by the arch-junkie Johnny Thunders is a masterpiece, and why some punk lyrics should be taken seriously because they’re as “poetic” as the best mainstream lyrics. The cast of Please Kill Me shows how garbage alternates between poles of good and bad and thus acts as an indispensable critical term in discussions of punk rock. Like a textual landfill, Please Kill Me portrays trash in all its diversity, laying it out before the reader as it relates to the personalities, behavior, style, and recordings of a five-year epoch. As a few examples demonstrate, reading the book is to tour the landfill and sift through the garbage.

Leee [sic] Childers, manager and photographer, recognized that trash fascinated his most famous client, David Bowie, who went on to collaborate with Iggy Pop, punk’s peerless self-destroyer. Bowie, the self-possessed master of masquerade, was infatuated with Iggy because this maniacal performer, satyr, and drug-gobbler was basically “a Detroit trash bag”; he was the real thing compared with Bowie, “a wimpy little South London art student [who could never] achieve the reality that Iggy was born into” (122). The implied chain of synonyms: garbage = reality = classic punk = great music. As we’ve seen elsewhere, the manifold applications of trash are matched by the term’s qualitative malleability. Before it resolves itself in either positive or negative terms, the metaphor of trash keeps the reader or listener guessing. The trope and the music it modifies are forever in flux.

Thus, we find Gyda Gash (bassist, groupie), impressed with the fierceness of the Dead Boys, pinpointing the main reason for their success-viz., they “were all poor white trash, lower-middle-class kids from Youngstown, Ohio” (241). We find Legs McNeil observing the uses to which a garbage pail can be put on behalf of the Sex Pistols, bickering louts crawling to the end on tour in San Francisco: “Sid sat in a chair with his shirt off. Johnny was alone on a couch muttering to himself. Steve and Paul were lounging next to a plastic garbage pail filled with Heinekens” (331-32). We find Mick Farren (author, singer), first, summing up the character of Sid Vicious, “the ultimate product of the entire punk movement,” in two words, “completely worthless” (378); and, second, commenting on the pathos of Lester Bangs’s premature death: “[I]t seemed like the only thing he could fucking do was die. That’s really what struck me about Lester-it seemed like a fucking waste of a brain. Because you sure as shit don’t have a lot of fun OD’ing on NyQuil” (379). Deserving the last citation is Please Kill Me’s coauthor McNeil, who, having tallied scores of casualties and corpses, yet believed in the beauty and wonder of punk and loved it despite the ugliness and horror it was fated to represent because it was music of the gutter and thus captured a realness, an honesty, not discoverable in the post-1960s world of disco, easy listening, and arena rock:

[Punk] was about doing anything that’s gonna offend a grown-up. Just being as offensive as possible. Which seemed delightful, just euphoric. Be the real people we are. You know? I just loved it. I remember my favorite nights were just getting drunk and walking around the East Village kicking over garbage cans…. It just seemed so glorious. And you’d be humming these great songs and anything could happen, and it was usually pretty good. (299)

The garbage cans are the clincher.

The references to garbage, dregs, scrapheaps, wastelands, and so on in the pages of Lester Bangs, in the put-downs in the Rolling Stone guide published in 1979, and in rock commentary in general are part of the tradition of contumely pervading rock criticism. Since its inception in the 1950s, rock and roll has caused critical furor, even in the jaded present, as the epigraph to this essay suggests. In 1956, a reporter for Scholastic tried to trash rock and roll by saying that, compared with jazz, it’s “a more violent, sound-shattering, solid-beating type of music. It is frequently accompanied by a ‘nonsense phrase’ or a moronic lyric sung in a hillbilly style” (“Rock and roll and Riot” 16). While rock’s “morons” proceeded to ignore their critics and create an ample body of beautiful music, they themselves had much to say about the theme of trash in this music.

Rock Artists and Trash

I say that the anonymous Scholastic reporter tried to trash rock music. And we’ve seen ample evidence of how rock critics trash the music they love, trash it because they love it. But one suspects that the better critics are determined less to expose what’s trashy than to reflect or mimic it. Bangs and Meltzer, and Burchill and Parsons aren’t garbage collectors wearing elbow-length gloves as they rummage through the trash looking for an isolated treasure. The treasure belongs in amongst the trash, partakes of its flavor and filth, assumes its essence. No rock and roll music is finally “clean,” not Buddy Holly’s, not Marshall Crenshaw’s, not XTC’s, not even Steely Dan’s. All of it is implicated in refuse. And that rock is trash presupposes that it can’t really be trashed, at least not by anyone who understands it, including rock and rollers themselves.

The fact is, practitioners of the form have ever known about rock’s low aspirations, its delinquent sensibility, its ugliness and lewdness, and its implicit trashiness and disposability. As often as not, these blots actually signify rock’s health and beauty. Consequently, someone trashing it often ends up complimenting it instead.

Some of the best “morons” have pondered the allegations against their craft. Luminaries from Elvis Costello to Elton John, from Mick Jagger to Bob Dylan, have downplayed their own recordings, in essence contradicting the article of faith among fans that rock and roll, in the worn-out phrase, “is here to stay” or that it’s Great Art. The bulk of its repertoire is not here to stay because it manages at best to beguile a fleeting moment. As if aware of this, some bands seeking fame and fortune are able at the same time to mock or deflate their own ambitions. Thus we have groups like Garbage, White Trash, the Trashmen, the Trash Can Sinatras, and the Lords of the Wasteland, whole subgenres like punk, and indie labels like Maureen Tucker’s Trash.6 Such artists seem content to acknowledge the prospects of obscurity, musical amateurism, poor sales, and low expectations of ever being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

On the other hand, many stars who can’t count the number of their platinum discs don’t always take their achievements seriously. Interviewing Mick Jagger in 1968, Jonathan Cott praised the lyrics to “Get Off of My Cloud,” thinking they made a “nice poem.” Jagger responded:

Oh, they’re not, they’re crap. It’s nothing. Thank you for the compliment, but I don’t think they’re great at all. If a person is that hung up on lyrics he can go and buy the sheet music because it’s all there, wrong, of course. (Cott 47)

Jagger’s fellow philosopher-king of rock and roll, Keith Richards, doesn’t get mired in aesthetic hairsplitting about the genre he elevated to great heights: “‘[A]rt’ is a word that gets bandied around. I don’t think that rock and roll songwriters should worry about art…. As far as I’m concerned, ‘Art’ is just short for ‘Arthur'” (Flanagan 207). Elvis Costello applies this idea to his own work: “[T]he simple truth is some of [my songs] are not that good. Some of them are a load of wank” (Flanagan 253), English slang for wasted essence. Sting’s viewpoint is equally refreshing.

[S]ome of my favourite songs are meaningless…. I was trying to figure out why I liked songs like “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Do Wah Diddy” and “Tutti-Frutti.” There’s a whole list of songs with just garbage as words that seem to be able to communicate something without necessarily meaning anything. (Flanagan 305)

Listeners familiar with the lyrics of the Police’s smash hit “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” would agree that Sting has touched upon one of the mysteries of rock and roll. Garbage is sometimes the only way to describe the best tunes ever released.

Trash and garbage are also the best way to describe very bad music. One wonders which way Lou Reed meant it with one of his most provocative releases. The cover of 1978’s Live: Take No Prisoners features a picture of an overturned trash barrel, masses of refuse being poured into the lap of the beholder. Next to the mounds of rotting garbage stands a leather-clad figure resembling Reed during that dim phase of his career. The picture suggests, “This album is trash and I’m its scurrilous author. Buy me!” Take No Prisoners, an album filled with scabrous monologues that segue into jerky renditions of Reed’s warhorses, was trashed by critics.

Lou Reed wasn’t the first to combine garbage graphics with trashy music. The cover of the Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird, which contains the title song and tossed-off covers like “It’s So Easy” and “Money,” displays the four bandmates leaning athwart a garbage truck. The clean-cut guitarists, wearing suits and ties and smiles, hold their Fenders along with a broom, a shovel, and an overturned trashcan. The drummer, grinning at the joke, lounges on the open gate of the dump truck, his drums nestled among the garbage. With this group, we’re back in the realm of good, maybe great, garbage. Surfin’ Bird has long been adored by collectors, inspiring enthusiasm for its reckless but rock-solid and instantly addictive program. Richard Meltzer believes that in the early 1960s the Trashmen revived a moribund rock scene along with one other band, the fabulous Beatles.

Regarding the Beatles, the intrigue of trash-talk increases significantly, especially when one of rock’s paramount figures cuts down a colleague’s work as well as his own achievements. Released immediately after the Beatles disintegrated, Paul McCartney’s first solo album, McCartney, received good reviews and it topped the American charts. Nevertheless, John Lennon, speaking with Jann Wenner in 1971, dismissed McCartney’s one-man effort as “rubbish” (Wenner 133). “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Teddy Boy,” “That Would Be Something,” “Every Night”-mere trash. Ironically, the album’s sweetest ballad, an instrumental called “Singalong Junk,” is echoed by a vocal version called “Junk.”

Unlike Lennon, when Stephen Erlewine refers in a recent web review to the “throwaway nature” of McCartney, the phrase is meant as a compliment, what with the disc’s throwaway quality connoting easygoing melodies and feel. That McCartney, all alone in his rural home studio, blends a bunch of hook-laden jams and fragments with five or six complete songs worthy of the Beatles themselves (some of them date back to “White Album” rehearsals), and tops the package off with an impressive drum solo (!); and that McCartney acknowledges, by including these fragments and experiments, the disposability of his project while achieving, through the appearance of some major additions to his canon, both its contemporary popularity and its longevity; that he succeeds at these tasks helps make McCartney, despite being released at a time when the sounds of Let It Be were still ringing in everyone’s ears, a hybrid of merit. It shows, as a bonus, the former Beatle debunking his own mythic stature.

In other words, McCartney invites no invidious comparison with Let It Be or other records by the Beatles. The recording is one of those rare throwaways by a major artist that thirty years later is still not only required but pleasant listening. Can the same be said of Lennon’s two volumes of “Unfinished Music,” Two Virgins and Life with the Lions? In these avant-trash vanity projects from the late ’60s, Lennon descended to the level of irredeemable disposability. They’re real trash, for collectors and completists only. Lester Bangs carped:

Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No. One, and the distinctly uncatchy Peace jingles on Wedding Album were the ego-trips of two rich waifs [i.e., Lennon and Yoko Ono] adrift in the musical revolution of the Sixties…. Dilettante garbage, simply. (“Plastic Ono” 18).

Given his own trashy indulgences, Lennon’s response to McCartney’s first solo effort would have gained crediblity had he suspended his judgment until hearing the true tripe of Wild Life by Paul McCartney and Wings, an album almost as bad as Lennon’s first collaborations with his wife or the couple’s later farrago, Sometime in New York City.

Lennon had always poked fun at the Beatles themselves, even during the height of Beatlemania. But in the 1971 interview with Wenner, he began his earnest dismantling of the Beatles legend. Amidst much grousing about how horrible it was to be a Beatle, Lennon attacked what consistently shows up on polls as one of the top ten albums in rock and roll history, Abbey Road. Lennon called the second side “junk because it was just bits of songs thrown together”; the album was “competent” but “had no life in it” (Wenner 145). These exceptional opinions may have been caused in part by the bitterness of the Fab Four’s breakup in 1970. Opening up to Wenner, Lennon unleashes his causticity with the abandon of a man thirsting for catharsis and thus using harsh words to wrench himself free, partly because of the desire for artistic self-realization and partly because of self-loathing, from the trammels of a ten-year tenure leading the world’s most visible band.

But John Lennon’s low opinion of the Beatles material that in his anger he disavowed during the myth-breaking therapy dialogues, lawsuits, and albums of 1970 and 1971 didn’t improve much with age. In the lengthy Playboy interviews conducted by David Sheff before his subject was murdered in 1980, the same scathing Lennon, despite being a happy family man hitting his stride with a number one album (Double Fantasy, cocredited to Yoko Ono), was on display. Lennon trashed many Beatles classics, including “I Am the Walrus” (“They get away with this artsy-fartsy crap…. I thought, Well, I can write this crap, too” [156]); “Sun King” (“That’s a piece of garbage I had around” [173])”; “And Your Bird Can Sing” (“[a]nother of my throwaways” [152]); and “Birthday” (“a piece of garbage” [160]). “I Wanna Be Your Man,” Ringo’s feature on With the Beatles, is, poof, “a throwaway” (145). “What Goes On” from Rubber Soul was “[rjesurrected [from the Quarrymen days] because I never liked to waste anything” (151). “Tell Me Why,” the rollicking number from A Hard Day’s Night that climaxes in exhilarating falsetto harmony (“Is there anything I can do-oo-oo?”) just before Ringo’s one-bar triplet fill, is something “I just knocked … off” (164). Until penning the ballad “In My Life,” confided Lennon, everything he wrote was “sort of glib and throwaway” (151).

Lennon picks them off one by one: “Good Morning, Good Morning” (“It’s a throwaway, a piece of garbage, I always thought” [155]); “Cry, Baby, Cry” (“[a] piece of rubbish” [169]); “Mean Mr. Mustard” (“That’s me, writing a piece of garbage” [171]); “Hey Bulldog” (“It’s a good-sounding record that means nothing” [172]); and “Dig a Pony” (“[a]nother piece of garbage” [173]). Even a song that makes Lennon’s cut, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” exists because of its relation to garbage: “The whole song is from a Victorian poster, which I bought in a junk shop” (155). He blames “Tip of My Tongue” on his partner, who Lennon thinks wrote his fair share of trash before going solo: “That’s another piece of Paul’s garbage, not my garbage” (164). Turning the spotlight on his solo work, Lennon sniffs at “Tight A$” (“[jjust a throwaway track” [180]) from Mind Games, “#9 Dream” (“a bit of a throwaway” [182]) and “Surprise, Surprise” (“[j]ust a piece of garbage” [183]) from Walls and Bridges, and “I Know, I Know” (“[j]ust a piece of nothing” [181]) from the Lennon Anthology.

That these volumes of rubbish and junk have sold and continue to sell innumerable copies around the globe (the compilation Beatles 1 topped the chart for weeks in late 2000/early 2001) suggests that Lennon was a better guitarist and songwriter than critic. But allowing that Lennon is right when he says that Abbey Road and many Beatles tracks are junk, then trash can be seen as a measure not of worthlessness but of greatness vis-à-vis rock and roll because Abbey Road, both sides of it, represents rock and roll at its best. In VHl ‘s New Year’s 2001 poll, Abbey Road was placed number eight. (Number one was Revolver.) The signifier trash, seemingly transparent and stable, is, like the contents of a garbage truck or landfill, chock full of variables.

Lennon and other critics teach us that to label something in rock music as trashy may be the best way to disturb apparent views of its quality. The evidence up to this point supports this conclusion. What matters less than one person’s opinion about this group or that album, even if that person is John Lennon, is that trash and related tropes are used so freely in the assessment of rock and roll music that the term’s function demands analysis as an aesthetic principle in specific cases and in general application. Superficial critical polarities related to rock music can be misleading. The worst stuff may be the best. The most disposable may be the most lasting. Trash might be collectible, nonsense lyrics might be profound. And vice versa.

At the peak of his mid-1970s fame, Elton John told Paul Gambaccini that Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, an album that spawned the hits “Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock,” is “Elton John’s disposable album” (290). Lyricist Bernie Taupin added,

a lot of times it’s good to write disposable songs anyway. You can write one or two “classics” that will last and be covered again in a few years’ time, but I think a majority of good pop songs nowadays are disposable. They’re songs for the time they’re in the charts, and three months later they’re just completely forgotten and nobody bothers with them again. I think that’s healthy in a way. You should always have fresh material coming along. (Gambaccini 290)

Paul McCartney seconds these ideas in his remarks on the origins of “Come and Get It,” a tune he wrote for Badfinger:

You see, I believe in throwaway as a great thing…. I did a demo for “Come and Get It” … which took about 20 minutes, it was before a Beatles session…. I ran in [to the studio] and said “Just do this, Phil [McDonald, the engineer at Abbey Road], go on, it’ll only take 20 minutes” and I threw it away. (Lewisohn 11)

This throwaway became a number seven hit in America.

An even greater song allied to garbage is “Heroin,” the Velvet Underground’s classic tune, one of the foundations of “alternative rock.” Maureen Tucker, the band’s drummer, admits that she got chills “whenever we played it [live]” but laments that the original recording “is a pile of garbage” (Milstein, Kostek, and Messer 133). Throughout the song, Tucker’s drums, to state the obvious problem, are out of synch with the other instruments. She batters her tom-toms at a tempo either ahead of or behind the guitars and vocals. This occurred not because Tucker lacked good time (her time was superb), but because during the recording she lacked, first, eye contact with Lou Reed, who sang lead, and, second, a monitor. Because Reed, John CaIe, and Sterling Morrison were plugged directly into the console, Tucker could hear nothing but a “mountain of drum noise” (133). She couldn’t even center her count by following the movement of Reed’s mouth as he sang.

Still, “Heroin'”s rhythmic irregularities mesh with John Cale’s screeching electric viola and Lou Reed’s disturbing vocals and twangy guitar. There’s something serendipitous about Tucker’s errant drumming on the ultimate track about heroin, “junk” that momentarily “nullifies life” (as Reed puts it) and often permanently ends it. The city about which Reed croons in despair in “Heroin” is overflowing not only with human trash and literal garbage but with narcotic junk too. Erratic drumming is the rhythm of that trashy city.

From first to last, the Velvet Underground and the concept of trash are interrelated. No less an inheritor of the Velvets’ stance and sound than Iggy Pop declared (McNeil and McCain 18):

The first time I heard [their first album] I just hated the sound. You know, HOW COULD ANYONE MAKE A RECORD THAT SOUNDS LIKE SUCH A PIECE OF SHIT! … FUCKING DISGUSTING HIPPIE VERMIN! FUCKING BEATNIKS, I WANNA KILL THEM ALL! THIS JUST SOUNDS LIKE TRASH!

Within a few months, Iggy “came around” and realized what “a fucking great record” he had slagged. The album’s “cheap” sound was integral to its goodness (McNeil and McCain 18). That another one of the greatest bands in history should be entangled in metaphors of garbage and waste confirms the paradox that rock and roll requires heapings of trash to achieve quality.

Still Trashy After All These Years

The garbage syndrome has continued in to the millennium. A sign of trash is seen as positive in John Blitzer’s review of P. J. Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (one of CDNow’s top ten alternative discs of 2000). He writes, “Harvey alternates between episodes of blistering, trashy, gutter guitar rock, and keyboard ballads of sheer melodic grace.” Reviewing a release by the Dandy Warhols, Neva Chonin writes, “Coming from a band whose greatest hit was ‘Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth,’ this album suggests that it’s possible to be elegantly wasted for fifteen minutes and survive to eloquently tell the tale” (74). Discoursing on Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow proves to be another artist who values the throwaway nature of rock: “I really understand his knack for creating an are in his melodies, because his songs are so effortless and sort of thrown away; you kind of miss their subtlety” (Scapelliti 44). Steve Huey commends the Cramps because of a “disposable feel” that “synthesizes classic rockabilly, touches of psychedelia, and lyrical fare … into an infectious, gloriously tasteless conglomeration of American trash culture.” And Greg Kot cites a similar reason for praise in his review in Rolling Stone of Elastica’s four-star release The Menace. This album “finds Elastica in an unrepentant mood, scuffing up their terse, trashy guitar rock with fun-house noise.” Kot thinks the band’s “[g]arbage-can drums, rinky-dink keyboards and corrosive guitars also make a fine mess of all those secondhand melodies” (110).

Let’s conclude by looking at a wrap-up by the Onion A.V. Club analyzing the “least essential albums of the ’90s.” The in-depth hacking at scores of titles, those that constitute “the Decade’s Most Disposable Recordings,” is as edifying as it is amusing, and the trashtrope undergirds the whole project. The authors, Keith Phipps, Nathan Rabin, and Stephen Thompson, have done their homework, ripping up the obvious releases by the big names (George Martin’s In My Life, Fleetwood Mac’s Time, the Knack’s Serious Fun) and dredging up gunk from the bottom of the barrel, disasters like The Best of Shaquille O’Neal, Songs from Ally McBeal Featuring Vonda Shepard, Joe Pesci’s Vincent Laguardia Gambini Sings Just for You, and, incredibly, the “Least Essential Album by a Cornerback,” Deion Sanders’s Prime Time-albums one can’t believe were ever conceived, contracted, recorded, pressed, hyped, and then shipped. We learn about the truly dreadful discs that merely help to clog landfills. Johnny Mathis’s album of “awful” songs by Diane Warren is “a treacly throwaway.” Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion Live is “a disposable cash-in.” “Skid Row and Guns ‘N’ Roses put out time-wasting covers albums” and Wreckx ‘n’ Effect (sic) “… releas[ed] a disposable album of such old-school covers as ‘Planet Rock’ and ‘Da Vapors.'” The rhetoric of garbage, so easily deconstructed in the self-congratulatory bravado of countless best-of surveys, online, print, and televisual, here serves as critical ballast. Because polls usually emphasize what’s great, we often forget how bad rock and roll really is. But who knows? Perhaps some of the discs savaged in this poll are great after all. At the very least, they might be essential because of their “inessentialness.”

For better and worse, literal and figurative trash marks rock and roll music. Whether as the stamp of beauty or the confirmation of ugliness, whether as an aesthetic term or a taxonomical heading, trash or one of its variants characterizes rock better than any other metaphor. Furthermore, the rhetoric of rock trash is matched by references to garbage in rock lyrics; by the presence of literal trash in rock performance (trashed stages, dressing rooms, guitars, etc.); by the scourge of junk (heroin) among rock musicians; and by human waste, that is, the premature death of rock stars. The story of Kurt Cobain alone, fully invested with trash at all these levels, proves him to be Waste Incarnate. But limited space constrains us to explore these aspects of trash in other essays. For now we conclude by saying that without the element of disposability permeating it, rock and roll wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has. Paradoxically, because it is permeated with trash, debris, junk, human dregs, garbage, and wasted lives, rock and roll might live forever after all.