Dec 292010

The idea of pairing two of rock music’s most famous names against one another for an end-all title bout in book form is a fun idea for fans. God knows there’s a lot of them. However, The Rolling Stones’ and The Beatles’ careers and legacies are so fractured and separated at this point that the idea that there is a “competition” among the two seems ridiculous. The Beatles basically transcend the whole concept of “better-than/worse-than” list making because their career arc so defies categorization or precedent. Literally no other group or artist reached (or will ever reach) the sway over popular culture The Beatles continue to hold. Meanwhile, The Stones have become such an identifiable institution that they stand as the ultimate example of the careerist rock band. Other than the fact that they started around the same time in the early 60′s, the two groups have much less in common than pop culture parlance would have you believe. Setting them up singer vs. singer, guitar player vs. guitar player, etc. is basically a losing proposition. The more appropriate pairing (if we are actually serious about this whole ‘vs’ idea) would be Stones and Led Zeppelin, at least from where I stand. Nonetheless, it stands as a welcome opportunity to enjoy some of 20th century’s best music.

Unfortunately, Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones is actually one of the most disappointing rock books released in 2010, despite the relatively low-hanging fruit authors Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot have chosen. It’s not any fault of the book’s graphic designers – the photos and chapter sections are laid out with precise, color-coordinated arrangement that make the book’s aesthetic qualities easily trump its written content. The main problem with the book is Jim DeRogatis.

At one point, DeRogatis (Jim Dero, for short) was considered one of the premier rock journalists in the business. How this happened I am not sure, as he has now officially become the walking embodiment of the numerous reasons many people laugh at the very idea of “rock journalism.” If DeRogatis is one of the best examples of the form, it seems better that the form doesn’t exist at all.

Where to begin? Jim Dero believes whole-heartedly that labels like “punk,” “sold out,” “alternative” and “hippies” actually mean anything in 2010. Most of his criticism seems to be centered around the ability to fit every piece of music since 1960 into these categories, which of course prevents any type of substantive, in-depth analysis. Pair this with the absolutely reeking tone of self-satisfaction that infests every one of his paragraphs in this book and you have an author so insufferable that the book cannot survive.

So, most of the complaints leveled against the book are really complaints about DeRogatis, but there it is. He ruins the book; the whole thing is his fault. For his part, Greg Kot occasionally offers some interesting tidbits of rock history (which is, after all, why people are going to buy this book). For the most part, though, Kot plays Colmes to DeRogatis’ Sean Hannity, sitting timidly while his counterpart runs roughshod over the whole enterprise. There are numerous examples in the transcript (the book is laid out like an epic conversation between the two writers) where Jim blatantly interrupts Greg.

DeRogatis says, in the book’s intro, that some of the “controversial” opinions in the book may infuriate readers. And so they have. That alone is not the problem. The problem is that the “controversy” seems to be the entire point of the book to Jim Dero, as opposed to actually writing about The Beatles or The Stones with any verisimilitude or integrity. Apparently he saw this book as a conduit for his attempts to be “edgy” about two of rock’s most celebrated names, as he spends most of the pages describing aspects of the two bands’ careers that are, to Jim DeRogatis’ mind, bad. The result is a book that fans of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones will hate, as so much of it is dedicated to trashing the two groups.

Among some choice sections: DeRogatis describing the film Yellow Submarine as a “turd” that’s “badly animated” (I thought it was generally accepted as a classic), saying that about half of The White Album should be cut out and making fun of the 2008 concert film Shine a Light because “not even Martin Scorsese” could make the (admittedly much beyond age 60) Stones look good on an IMAX screen. This last section is especially humorous, as DeRogatis is not even talking about music anymore, but how good looking the rock stars are. Hypocrisy, much? I can’t imagine a less “punk” approach to music journalism.

By the way, do you like “Oh, Darling!” off of Abbey Road? Well, too bad, it “just sucks,” according to DeRogatis without any supporting points whatsoever. Also, “She’s Leaving Home” and “Lovely Rita” are bad because they “sympathize with authority figures,” while “Mother Nature’s Son” is a stupid appeal to the hippie “back to earth” movement and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is questionable because its music-hall style glorifies a serial killer. Great way to miss the point on apparently half of The Beatles’ catalogue, Jim.

Someone should’ve told DeRogatis at some point that the book is about these two beloved groups, and not about Jim DeRogatis. Dero rarely misses a chance to self-promote in the pages, labeling himself a punk, someone who “loves to deflate myths at every chance” (as long as its not the the myth that punk rock was the most anti-authoritarian, artistically pure music ever made) and repeatedly pointing out books he wrote and edited and famous people who taught at his college. By the time he gets into some really nasty, mean-spirited assumptions about Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney’s personal character near the book’s close, the reader starts approaching DeRogatis’ sections with the attitude of “God, how long is this going to take?”

Reading this book, it wasn’t the Stones or The Beatles who I was thinking about. I actually had a song by another musical luminary humming in the back of my head. Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” is about a philistine, Mr. Jones, who runs around in society and tries to hook up and hang out with all the “happening” people and events, but is ultimately never able to understand the point or purpose of the society around him. He’s going through the motions, the world has passed him by and all he can do is complain that “there’s something happening here, but [I] don’t know what it is.” Allegedly, Dylan wrote the song about a particularly annoying journalist who battered Bob with ridiculous questions when he was “going electric” in the mid-60′s. Now, whoever that journalist was (or if he even existed) is lost to history, but the sentiment of “Ballad of a Thin Man” remains universal. Jim DeRogatis reveals himself as a modern day Mr. Jones in this could’ve-been-good book.

The good: these photographs are excellent. The lenticular cover is neat. The bad: pretty much everything else. At the book’s end, Derogatis and Kot come to the conclusion of basically “it’s too hard to say who’s better!,” which I could’ve predicted before looking at the cover. The only thing to be learned from The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones is that  one of the reasons The Beatles and The Rolling Stones created so much incredible music is that no one in either group was/is anything like Jim Derogatis. Fatuous people don’t make great art. This book’s “controversy” is manufactured, insincere and insulting to anyone who takes rock music seriously. Skip this and pick up Revolver and Let It Bleed instead. You’ll be a lot better off.

Final Grade: *1/2 (out of five)