The legendary scribe’s latest book is a love letter to long-form music criticism
If only for his pioneering work as a founding editor of CREEM magazine, Dave Marsh would have earned his status as one of the pioneering voices in music criticism.
Along with his colleague and “frenemy” Lester Bangs, the two writers/editors helped make CREEM into a bona fide cultural phenomena during the 1970s, documenting the classic rock era with both humor and insight. Both men eventually made their way out of Detroit to New York City and Rolling Stone magazine, but it was there that their stories diverged as Bangs sadly passed away in 1982, leaving behind a large legacy that has grown over time.
During the 1980s and ‘90s Marsh penned best-selling books on Elvis Presley (Elvis), Michael Jackson (Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream), and Bruce Springsteen (four of ‘em, actually, including Born To Run and Glory Days). Marsh has been involved with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; he hosts three different shows on Sirius XM radio (“Live From E Street Nation,” “Kick Out The Jams,” and “Live From the Land of Hopes and Dreams”); and he was an editor and contributor for the influential Rock and Rap Confidential newsletter, among numerous other credentials.
In the interest of full disclosure, Dave Marsh is a friend and colleague of mine who has been far more encouraging and supportive of my writing than I had any right to expect. But long before I ever met the man, I was a big fan, and his writing for CREEM, Rolling Stone and The Village Voice influenced my own work as well as inspired me to look at life, music and politics with open eyes and ears. Many of Marsh’s two-dozen-plus books are on my shelves, none more dog-eared, perhaps, than Fortunate Son, a 1983 collection of his music criticism.
Although you may not have seen his editorial byline as frequently since Fortunate Son, Marsh has never stopped writing, and the recently released Kick Out The Jams: Jibes, Barbs, Tributes, and Rallying Cries From 35 Years of Music Writing collects the best of his essays, reviews and commentary from the decades since the publication of Fortunate Son. Marsh has a well-deserved reputation for emphasizing the “critic” part of rock criticism, imbuing his opinions with an acerbic perspective and wit that, while frequently stating truth to power, nevertheless rubs some people the wrong way. Unlike many contemporary “music journalists,” Marsh is no mindless purveyor of the “hot take,” his opinions carefully considered and forged by decades of experience and knowledge and a moral compass that lands him firmly on the side of the underdog.
Edited by Marsh’s longtime friends and frequent collaborators Daniel Wolff and Danny Alexander, Kick Out The Jams offers up 60+ pieces in roughly chronological order of their original publication, broken into sections by decade and each ranging from a few paragraphs to lengthy essays. Marsh opens with a 1982 remembrance of Elvis Presley that he originally presented as a speech at Memphis State University and later reworked into an article for Musician magazine. If Lauren Onkey’s brilliant “Blood In Your Mouth” introduction sets up the pins, Marsh’s prologue knocks ‘em all down, bringing nuance and insight to Presley’s story, the artist’s overwhelming loneliness, and the societal conditions that helped nurture the singer. It’s an entirely different take on the rock ‘n’ roll legend, and one that opens the doors of perception to the work that follows.
Marsh often mixes social commentary with music criticism, a trademark of the writer dating back to 1969 and his first words for CREEM. Marsh doesn’t necessarily believe that music will change the world, but he does believe that music can provide hope and inspiration to those who will. His then-timely thoughts on the uproar over Madonna’s Like A Prayer album and video; the efforts of the politically-connected Parent’s Music Resource Center (PMRC) to censor music; the blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks; and Pearl Jam’s fight against Ticketmaster’s predatory practices would seem hopelessly out-of-date, save for the current censorship frenzy pursued by the Conservative right, or Taylor Swift’s recent fight against, well…Ticketmaster. With pro-LGBTQ+ books and those on African-American history in the GOP’s crosshairs, can rock and blues records really hope to escape the bonfires of ignorance?
Hang around as long as Marsh has been involved in the rock ‘n’ roll game and, sadly, you’re going to write your share of obituaries. A number of these tributes are scattered throughout Kick Out The Jams, from reverent and succinct pieces on legends like Roy Orbison, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Frank Zappa and soul songwriter General Johnson that explain their importance and influence in carefully budgeted prose, to lengthier memories of the great record guy John Hammond and the tragic death and profound sadness of Kurt Cobain. One of the best of these poignant essays is on pioneering Birmingham, Alabama DJ Shelley Stewart, who stood at the forefront of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and used his radio broadcast forum to energize and motivate people to make a difference.
Marsh has written more than his share of artist profiles, and his tastes run towards the obscure and undervalued singers and songwriters that are often left by the blacktop as roadkill by a soul-crushing music business. Typically, these features provide some of his most passionate writing, and Kick Out The Jams offers profiles of artists as talented and diverse as Patty Griffin, Alexandro Escovedo and Jimmy LaFave; Marsh’s 1990 otherwise uplifting story for Musician magazine, “After the Revolution: The Legacy of the MC5,” takes on a bittersweet flavor when one realizes that singer Rob Tyner would die of a heart attack less than a year later. One of Marsh’s most eye-opening profiles, however, is of Gospel giant Dorothy Love Coates and her never-ending fight for equality and justice as both an artist and an activist.
Marsh is firmly identified with Bruce Springsteen, and ‘The Boss’ makes an appearance a couple of times in Kick Out The Jams, most notably with “To Set Our Souls Free,” a thought-provoking review of Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album written with Alexander that frames the politically charged work months after its release, after the critical furor has receded and the underlying message of each song can be properly assessed. It’s an artful piece of writing, and one that got me thinking differently about an album that I’d all but dismissed; forcing it off the shelf and onto the stereo.
We live in an increasingly artless society, with the corporate gatekeepers decreeing that “if it doesn’t show a profit, we’re not interested,” and our civilization is all the poorer for it. Writing about music can be as much of an art as the music itself, and Dave Marsh is one of the best that has ever sat at a typewriter.
In the introduction to the final section of Kick Out The Jams, Marsh addresses the book itself, writing “what do I think of having my writing collected like this? I like enough of it that I’m proud; and I dislike enough of it that I’m anxious. And I’m very flattered.” What Marsh’s detractors have seldom understood is that Dave is his own strictest critic. In an era where long form music criticism has all but disappeared (except for here at Rock and Roll Globe!), it’s good to have Kick Out The Jams to remind us of how meaningful it can be…
AUDIO: Pete Townshend on Dave Marsh