I was predisposed to liking Rick Moody’s new book, On Celestial Music, a collection of this prodigious and innovative writer’s essays on pop — and especially rock — music. I love rock, and love writers who know it deeply and passionately, which Moody does.
First, some background. I was a big fan of his second novel, The Ice Storm and loved the follow-up Purple America. Furthermore I respect like hell his talent for emotionally challenging, disturbing zeitgeist fiction (“The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven”) and formal experiments (“Primary Sources” is a fictional autobiography told in the form of an annotated bibliography; “Wilkie Fahnstock: The Boxed Set” is another fictional autobiography, this one told entirely in the form of a tracklist and liner notes to a 10-cassette mix-tape of the character’s favorite music —Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity has got nothing on Moody.)
I also felt bad about a mixed review I wrote for his 2001 story collection, Demonology, which Moody read and got so angry about that he sent me a really nasty e-mail. Not that I’d take anything back, but he did remind me that writers sometimes do read their reviews, and can be hurt by them.
Of course, you’d think Moody, after four books, an award-winning film based on The Ice Storm, countless writing awards and a whole lot of remuneration, would have acquired a thick skin. And if he didn’t, he certainly would have had to after Dale Peck, in one of the most famous reviews of the new century, called Moody “the worst writer of his generation.” (He meant the worst writer of any great talent of his generation, but still.) Suddenly Moody, who until then had been bunched with fellow generational standard-bears Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and David Foster Wallace, saw his reputation teeter dangerously. It didn’t help that his Pynchonesque mega-novels of the new century, The Diviners and The Four Fingers of Death, were met by readerly befuddlement.
Peck’s review, though mercilessly acute about some of Moody’s stylistic deficiencies, is basically bullshit, a broadside against the kind of high-octane postmodernism which Moody practices and which Peck hates (you might call Peck the worst reviewer of any great talent of his generation). Anyway, it was terrifically unfair. All this put me on Moody’s side, coming to *On Celestial Music.
Until I read the book. It’s composed of 13 essays. Some consider bands like Wilco, Magnetic Fields or The Pogues; some are surveys that explore “The New York Underground, 1965-1988” or the use of electronics in European pop, or the idea of what “cool” means in American popular culture. The essays on Meredith Monk and The Pogues are vital, insightful, personal, idiosyncratic — the kind of thing you hope to read from a novelist slumming in the fields of rock criticism. The New York Underground essay is journeyman’s work but no better: any *Rolling Stone writer could have written it.
But every single essay is way too long — three of them top 50 pages — and lots of them indulge Moody’s penchant for beginning an essay before he has any real idea of what he wants to say, for floundering digression, and for unnecessary and pretentious “research,” some of which seems to come right off the Internet or a nearby reference book. Do we need to know the root of the word “cool” is the Anglo-Saxon “colian,” when the meaning of that form of “cool” has to do with temperature and nothing to do with copping an attitude? (And how can you write a 46-page history of “cool” in the postwar period without even mentioning Frank Sinatra?) Both in terms of content and structure, these essays range all over the place, and what comes across more than anything is Rick Moody knows a hell of a lot — though not necessarily more than you do — and he thinks we have all the time in the world to hear about it.
But what really turned me against the book is the 57-page essay entitled “The Pete Townsend Fragments.” It’s ostensibly a compassionate investigation of Pete Townsend’s music (both with The Who and solo) in the wake of the British police’s 2003 discovery that Townsend had accessed a child porn website. (Townsend claimed he was doing research “to counter damage done by all kinds of pornography on the Internet” and he was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.) But the essay’s a travesty, and, I’d argue, borderline immoral — a travesty because it uses the child porn topic as a hook for a diffuse, rambling tour of Townsend’s music, and borderline immoral because it does its best to keep alive the possibility that Townsend’s a perv, despite supplying not a single bit of solid evidence. Pete Townsend’s no saint — he’s about as dyspeptic and spoiled a (great) rock star as we’ve got— but there’s no justification for this essay’s collection of innuendo, leading questions and quarter-baked argument.
When Moody wrote me complaining about my review, he ended it by saying, “Next time think about how a writer might feel about what you’ve written.” You might bestow the same courtesy to Townsend, Rick. Think about how Townsend might feel. And try editing your work a little while you’re at it.
On Celestial Music Rick Moody, Little, Brown/Back Bay Books, 439 pages