Current readers of Pitchfork take the hyperbole that accompanies positive reviews with a pound of salt. But rock criticism has always harbored such fervor. Take this example: "There's a group you have to hear. They're called the Doors, and they're the best new band I've heard this year."
That proclamation ran in the seventh issue of Crawdaddy!, a lithographed rock fanzine launched in 1966 in Manhattan's Greenwich Village by a bespectacled teenager named Paul Williams. Widely considered the first U.S. magazine dedicated to rock criticism, Crawdaddy! extolled artists who became crucial voices of the era. But in 1968, Williams walked away, explaining later in an interview with RockCritics.com that the "battle had been won. Now [that] The New York Times was reviewing rock music...there wasn't any sense anymore of trying to prove something or rallying a community."
Created with contributions from fellow rock fanatics (and future Bruce Springsteen managers, Sam Cooke biographers and sci-fi demigods), the cult magazine exerted a lasting influence. The successes of Crawdaddy!'s contributors have been widespread, their careers outlasting the mag itself, which atrophied at the end of the '70s.
Or did it?
Welcome back, Crawdaddy!, now a weekly Web 'zine based in San Francisco as part of Wolfgang's Vault. The Vault, a Web site associated with the Bill Graham archives, deals in Summer of Love memorabilia and added Crawdaddy! to its roster in May.
With no lack of music 'zines on offer, we asked Williams why he's jumping back into publishing. "I am again stimulated by hearing new music and...[want to] encourage the process of self-realization made possible by this music and our involvement in it," he writes via e-mail. Williams then proceeds to belie his stated passion for fresh meat by describing his enjoyment of Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Neil Young's recent archival releases.
Editor-in-chief Jocelyn Hoppa goes into greater detail about Crawdaddy!'s modern aims. "We feel like there's no better catalyst for re-creating that type of subjective, extended rock writing than by relaunching the publication," she explains.
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So far, it's hard to decipher which decade the new Crawdaddy! wants to evoke. Spotlighted articles on the Modern Lovers, Joe Strummer and the Who's Tommy are directed toward the over-40 rock fan, while music made in this millennium gets posted at the bottom of the site. Perhaps that's for the best when a record review concludes with the insipid line, "Let God Save the Clientele save your summer...and your soul."
In a landscape where major labels and venerable magazines scramble for footing, it's unclear just where Crawdaddy! will fit. One recurring column, "The Switchback," attempts to suture the age divide, comparing Bruce Springsteen to the Hold Steady's Craig Finn one week and making connections between Captain Beefheart and Erase Errata the next. So far, "Switchback" offers oversimplified and forced arguments, but if the column becomes a gateway for older music fans cowed by the intervening decades, its purpose is served.
Considering how another rock rag of yesteryear, Creem, failed in its relaunch attempt a few years back (its Web site, boasting pieces on Elvis, Joe Cocker and the drummer from the Knack, hasn't been updated since 2006), just how Crawdaddy! will survive remains to be seen. Williams's brand is nostalgic, yet it must negotiate with a new generation that uses criticism as merely a tip sheet on what to download next. What's to separate Crawdaddy! from the other e-zines already existent?
Hoppa aims to fight apathy with earnestness: "[Crawdaddy! is] a music fan looking at music and giving their experience with it," she says. "It doesn't necessarily have to be Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism; it's from the heart." Given how boilerplate most music blog entries are these days, with lazy YouTube links and MP3s from industry flacks, perhaps Crawdaddy! will thrive in this new world after all.