As if following the maxim “those who can’t, teach,” rock critics often reveal a personal agenda, a sense of sad betrayal from being denied their own shot at stardom. The writing carries an undercurrent of “I could do better than that,” or at least a lot of rock fans seem to think so.
Critic John Mendelssohn does his best to bear this prejudice out with a purposefully ridiculous scene at the start of his autobiography, I, Caramba, a combination book and CD just released by Rhino Records. His band Christopher Milk is being mobbed by fans on the way to play before a crowd of 17,000 in his hometown of LA. It’s a fantasy of course, though Christopher Milk did put out a couple of albums in 1971 and ’72. Both records bombed, and Mendelssohn went on to form other bands. Yet Mendelssohn isn’t known for playing music, he’s known for writing about it, becoming “if not the father of American rock criticism, at least its nephew,” according to the blurb on the front of I, Caramba.
Beginning with an essay on the Doors–“whom I thought pretension made flesh”–for UCLA’s Daily Bruin, Mendelssohn went on to write about music for the Los Angeles Times. His infamous debut in Rolling Stone ripped into Led Zeppelin’s first album: “Fancying myself an expert on loneliness, a connoisseur of despair, I loathed them from the fadeout of the first track, during which [Robert] Plant snidely asserted, ‘I know what it’s like to be alone,’ so as to mock the notion of self-pity. There are some things I just can’t stand anyone being snide about.” Yet snideness would be Mendelssohn’s stock-in-trade as a critic, while loneliness and self-pity (not to mention regret) would become his most recurring lyrical concerns as a songwriter.
His early criticism borrowed from the flip style of British pop writer Nik Cohn, but Mendelssohn stepped up the sarcasm. This was at a time when rock critics like Lester Bangs were taking a less traditional tack in new magazines such as Rolling Stone and Creem. Mendelssohn says, “Nothing would do for me but to be every bit as outrageous as the music I was writing about.” A star was born.
Born in 1947, “the same year as David Bowie and Iggy Pop,” to a mother described as “being terrified of nearly everything” and a father who came from a long line of “brilliant sulkers and incomparable resenters,” Mendelssohn says his earliest memory is of his mother urging him to hide beneath the bed while she was in the shower so kidnappers wouldn’t carry him away. He feared his father, whose idea of a swimming lesson was throwing his son into the deep end of a pool and letting him flail.
He spent his school years as an outsider. Shy and uncoordinated, he collected stamps by day and committed acts of petty vandalism by night. He developed a love of music in grade school and quickly formed his own opinions, realizing even then that “I was an elitist.” Mendelssohn says he “left Elvis to the others” and idolized Jimmie Rodgers (of “Honeycomb” fame), constantly stopping at the small market near his family’s apartment to ogle the cover of Rodgers’s first album and marvel at how “unbelievably cool he was with his greasy hair and sunburst guitar and cigarette.” Seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, “I didn’t begin to understand their appeal (‘Till There Was You’? Jesus!),” instead opting to replay the sound track from West Side Story over and over again. Then he saw the movie A Hard Day’s Night. “I was utterly mesmerized and transformed for all time.” He soon formed his own rock band in a misguided quest to become the “American Ringo.”
By the early 70s Mendelssohn had become a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, where he had a reputation as a “heartless destroyer of careers,” though his writing undoubtedly helped other bands, such as ELO and the now-forgotten Black Oak Arkansas. Hitting his peak as an influential critic, he seized the opportunity to at least act the part of a rock star, donning velvet suits and a Rod Stewart hairdo and becoming involved with a succession of leggy blonds. Then by the middle of the decade he gave up rock criticism entirely: “Jon Landau’s replacement as Rolling Stone’s review editor neglected to flatter me as extravagantly as I expected. Truth be told I had long ceased to regard rock criticism as much of a job for a man–or woman. Or child.” It’s not that he felt too old to rock and roll; he simply got tired of being critical. “I pretended to disdain people who liked the Wrong Artists, but in fact envied them. My life could have been a little fuller if I’d enjoyed Led Zeppelin as much as others claimed to.”
Mendelssohn spent the next ten years working for ad agencies and taking temp jobs as a data-entry clerk while penning unpublished novels, unsold screenplays, and a biography, David Geffin, All Around Terrific Guy. The book was bought by Birch Lane Press, which never published it (he claims they feared offending the great man). But music continued to play a central role in his life; he formed and then dissolved a band (the Pits) and continued to make home recordings.
The I, Caramba CD contains 23 tracks, from his time with Christopher Milk to a few home demos recorded in 1992. The earliest songs farm the same territory as British bands like the Move, somewhere between early 70s glam rock and the pastoral psychedelia of late-period Small Faces. The opening track “Basket Case” is among the best of the bunch; a loping bass line gives it a rootsy, melancholy feel. Its lyrics sound like Van Dyke Parks’s work on the Beach Boys’ aborted Smile album (e.g., “I feed my ego health food”), and the title alone could describe Brian Wilson during the Smile sessions. But after reading the I, Caramba book, it’s obvious that the song’s autobiographical–it’s about Mendelssohn’s fucked up life.
The best songs from the period immediately following the breakup of Christopher Milk, such as “Leon” and “I’m Going to Jump,” sound like the predisco version of Sparks (Mendelssohn was a short-lived member of the group Half Nelson before the Maal brothers changed the name to Sparks). “I’m Going to Jump,” which chronicles one of his many unsuccessful love relationships, epitomizes Mendelssohn’s lyrical concerns–it’s all self-pity and despair.
His other songs may address the same matters, but they don’t always plumb the same depths. Take one of the best tracks on the CD, 1975’s “To Love Again”: “But then the memories of secrets shared and feeling dared returns each morning that I wake up all alone / Now I find myself a little scared, but nonetheless prepared to love again.” Sure, he’s singing about another devastating breakup, but he accepts the sometimes fleeting nature of love and plans to carry on. Midway through the CD he’s singing cheesy new-wave-ish novelty songs with titles like “Barbra’s Brassiere” and “Gay Friends.” It’s fun stuff but not on a par with the earlier tracks or the more delicate later material such as “The Cathers in the Rye” or “The Warmth of Your Concern,” which sound similar to British bands from the early 80s like the Pale Fountains or Friends Again, with their jangly acoustic guitars, lyrics about rejection, and Burt Bacharach fixations. It’s obvious that Mendelssohn finally stopped trying to write hits and began writing for himself. Overall, however, the songs work perfectly as a sound track to the autobiography; in themselves, they’re not star-making material.
Today Mendelssohn has settled down. He’s spending more time with his young daughter, and is concerned with more practical matters like earning money. But aside from odd jobs writing liner notes, he doesn’t get published much anymore. I, Caramba includes a few rejection letters; one from TV Guide tells him to stop bothering them. Yet, through it all, he’s managed to hold on to his feelings of superiority (“every magazine is full of the bylines of writers I’m better than”). It’s not all bluster. He’s still recognized as a star in the field of rock journalism. Austin Chronicle critic (and former Sun-Times contributor) Michael Corcoran has written, “[The few rock critics] I prefer and aspire to be like are entertainers….They’re funny and irreverent wild men….This very small contingent includes the late, great Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches, and John Mendelssohn… all great writers who happen to write about music and, in doing so, create music through their words.”