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Interviews with the Alternative Greats

Jul. 2, 2012
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David Todd wants Feeding Back: Conversations with Alternative Guitarists (Chicago Review Press) to be more than just a good collection of interviews with rock guitarists—not “guitar heroes,” mind you, but representatives of what he terms the “alternative rock guitar tradition.” The Otterbein University English professor (and playwright) expounds on a story parallel to the usual chronicle of guitarists that runs from Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry to Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page through Eddie Van Halen and the metalheads.

Todd uses “alternative” unselfconsciously, as if the word hadn't long eroded into a marketing tagline with little meaning. But he has a point to make and his parameters are clear enough: a sonic universe bordered by the Stooges and Sonic Youth, '60s garage and '70s punk, with Captain Beefheart, Krautrock and PiL at the vanguard. When examining the many influences on the guitarists within that universe, “you just have to start by throwing a dart somewhere,” the author admits. And so you have to show how avant-garde jazz influenced everyone from the MC5 to Robert Quine—a phenomenon identified years ago by Lester Bangs. Also, ideas from minimalists such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass filtered into the Velvet Underground and others. But it never ends. The garage aesthetic identified by Lenny Kaye on his Nuggets compilation of obscure '60s American rock flows into the same alternative ocean as Celtic drone and ragas.

The categories and definitions are slippery, but common themes emerge from interviews with such players as Zoot Horn Rollo, Richard Thompson, Wayne Kramer, Lee Renaldo and Tom Verlaine. Many were inspired (if not necessarily influenced) by post-bop avant-garde jazz or the Beat poetry. Most were wary of much that happened in the '60s, especially the hippy ethos culminating in Woodstock. And most tried to expunge blues from their vocabulary, either feeling they could never match the African-American originators or because they sought to avoid the obvious and find a new vocabulary for rock.

Of course, many of the guitarists Todd interviewed drew influences from rock players who never touched the mainstream, including Johnny Thunders and Johnny Ramone, and yet many also pay respect to such familiar figures as Hendrix. Even Bob Mould, who began under the propulsive spell of Thunders and the Ramones, began to embrace the “Hendrix style” of controlled feedback.

Perhaps the most common denominator for everyone featured in Feeding Back was the willingness to think beyond the accepted ways of doing things, which in punk rock, as Keith Levene stresses, mean breaking free of punk.


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