BAT CHAIN PULLER:
Rock & Roll in the Age of Celebrity
By Kurt Loder
St. Martin's Press
377 pages; $19.95
AS A RECORD of pop culture in the 1980s, Kurt Loder's compilation of interviews and other writings is a must to read. But it could have been even more.
Loder, one of MTV's talking heads and a contributing editor of Rolling Stone magazine, has compiled some of the best of his writings for that magazine, including three stories that never made it into the magazine. They're woven together by the thread of celebrity, the foremost currency of the 1970s and '80s.
Through his interviews, Loder gives words to the faces that dominated the video channels, movie screens and -- most importantly -- the tabloids, people like Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Don Johnson and Mel Gibson.
While Loder often seems to capture the essence of his subjects, it's frequently a road that's been traveled before (his 1984 profile of Prince -- based on interviews of people around the reticent star -- is an exception).
So while David Bowie may let his hair down (or up, depending which Bowie persona you're talking about) in the Australian outback and Sean Connery may suffer an interview as publicity for the James Bond flick "Never Say Never Again," those aren't particularly enlightening segments. One of the definitions of celebrity is that those being celebrated have already had their lives recorded in the minutest detail.
What's more fascinating are the lesser-known characters and subjects, be it Ronnie Lane of the '60s rock band Small Faces facing up to multiple sclerosis or the reclusive Captain Beefheart grousing about Frank Zappa ripping off his musical style ("He got a lot of goodies off me. He never quit," growls Beefheart).
Loder's study of the sleazy porn and slasher film scene is fascinating in its slimy creepiness, even as it wanders from the true freaks of New York City's Times Square area to those who immerse themselves in studying the phenomenon. Bill Landis, the publisher of Sleazoid Express, describes one of the subgroups as the Blockheads, "overbuilt physical-culture fetishists with too-tight clothes, no necks and perpetually intense, sweat-sheened features -- helpless compulsives in the group of obsessions they only dimly understand." And it's not even science fiction.
Loder's profile of Deborah Harry and Chris Stein is a touching one, with Harry exhibiting more tenderness than one might expect from an old punk in her singular devotion to Stein as he went through four years of a near-fatal and debilitating illness.
And to his credit, the writer gets to mix in obscure but deserving artists like Iggy Pop, Beefheart (the book's title is taken from one of his songs) and Ted Hawkins, an obscure American soul-bluesman who found European stardom a few years ago.
The results cause one to consider how much good writing has come out of Rolling Stone in the past two decades, a fact easy to overlook amid the publication's current obsession with becoming a lifestyle magazine for baby boomers.
Still, some of Loder's best ideas are confined to the introduction (where Loder considers the absurdity of piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz making the disco scene at New York's Studio 54 in the late '70s) and to brief comments before each selection.
While Loder dances around the subject, his compilation of previously published material fails to provide a definitive comment on celebrity and rock 'n' roll. He never goes head-on with the issue of whether music that arises from a youth culture can survive when it's reduced to fodder for the gossip mill, or if that development is simply inevitable.
That book is left waiting to be written.