Whenever I read anything by rock critic Dave Marsh, I think of a cartoon by Matt Groening from back in the '80s, a few years before he created THE SIMPSONS. In the cartoon, one of Groening's copyrighted spiky-haired creatures holds up a book: HOW TO BE A FEISTY ROCK CRITIC, by "Li'l Feisty."
If there was ever a model for "Li'l Feisty," it had to be Dave Marsh.
He started out writing a variation on rock critic Lester Bangs' adrenaline-fueled blather for CREEM magazine, then later on was the short, skinny, loudmouthed, smart-assed punk who stood up for old-time rock&roll virtues in the pages of ROLLING STONE.
Marsh was one of the key writers who made the original red-cover ROLLING STONE RECORD GUIDE the book you loved to hate as you threw it across the room. But he mellowed as he got older, turned his back on all those snarky putdowns in the RS RECORD GUIDE, & wrote a wonderful 500-page love letter to rock: THE HEART OF ROCK AND SOUL -- reviews & hidden sexual meanings for 1,000 great rock and soul singles! Classic stuff!
He also wrote the best, most detailed history of The Who that I ever expect to read -- BEFORE I GET OLD ... even if he did scrimp a bit on details after Keith Moon died.
You get samples of all these kinds of writing in the pages of Marsh's best-of, FORTUNATE SON (1985). Unfortunately, there isn't all that much here to love. Marsh never seems to really get that far INTO the music. The music hardly ever carries him away. He's always thinking. He's always analyzing. He's always looking for a fight. He's too political. He thinks too much.
There are a few obviously expressed bits of love and admiration -- like when Marsh remembers the first time he heard Smokey Robinson, The Righteous Brothers, Phil Spector, etc. And there's some warm, vivid writing about Marsh's early days as a suburban Detroit kid.
But after that, a lot of the book's kind of ... DRY. There's an expert demolition job on Bob Seger's 1980 album AGAINST THE WIND, which I remembered from its first appearance in ROLLING STONE. Marsh's view was that the laid-back lameness of AGAINST THE WIND betrayed Seger's past & future as a rocker. I just thought the album was tired hackwork from an obviously uninspired artist. It was SO dull that I actually FORGOT to include it in my list of The Most Boring Pop Albums Of All Time, awhile back....
There's a long, solid, sociologically-based review of Bruce Springsteen's NEBRASKA that makes me want to go put it on right now. There's also a funny story from Bruce at the very end that made me laugh.
But after that, the rest seems too angry or too picky, or just not enough fun. There had to be better work out there for Dave to put into a retrospective.
There was a punchline to that old Matt Groening cartoon:
Q: Will Li'l Feisty be able to put his best rock writings into a big best-selling book?