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The changing nature of rock and roll is mirrored by shifts in its lexicon, and no term associated with the genre exemplifies this characteristic better than "rock and roll" itself. Blacklisted disc jockey Alan Freed is credited with concocting the slogan, but variations on it can be heard in blues and jump-blues tunes recorded years before Freed made it his trademark. In those days, though, the words referred to energetic lovemaking, not music--they were the "doing the nasty" of their day. But if Freed's accomplishment had less to do with innovative phraseology than with his understanding of the sound's basic appeal (bottom line, he recognized how much it had in common with sex), that doesn't make it any less impressive. After all, the image has been an uncommonly elastic one: Even after more than forty years, people use it to describe artists as disparate as, say, John Prine and the Orb without much fear of argument.

We won't know until a third of the way into the next century whether the label "alternative" will challenge "rock and roll" for pop-cultural longevity, but one thing's clear right now: Scribes like Eric Weisbard and Craig Marks, editors of the just-published Spin Alternative Record Guide (Vintage, $20), are certainly stretching it further and further with each passing day. Five years ago or so, when the expression first came into general usage, the folks at Spin used "alternative" to describe rock music that shared roots with the tunes dominating the sales charts yet was definably tougher, more extreme and more challenging than the status quo. Problems arose, however, when artists so stamped began to realize popularity that matched or surpassed that of their mainstream peers. Now, in 1995, performers dubbed "alternative" ("offering or expressing a choice," according to Webster's) represent the musical majority, while those old-style musicians that once held sway over the nation's airwaves are struggling to survive.

In short, "alternative" doesn't make nearly as much sense as it once did, yet it has become so entrenched in the language of reviewers, publicists and other cogs in the music industry that they are reluctant to discard it--particularly since there doesn't seem to be a workable, er, alternative. Weisbard is so sensitive to this that he prefaces the Alternative Record Guide with a monstrous essay entitled "What Is Alternative Rock?" But although he spends thousands of words trying, he never quite answers his own question. At one point, he admits, "Yes, it is reasonable to wonder how much of an `alternative' Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots or Pearl Jam are to the rock bands of yore. It is difficult to draw the line between Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz pretending to be Jimi Hendrix. Between the part of Tori Amos that borrows from Kate Bush (who's in this book) and the part that borrows from Joni Mitchell (who's not)." But by the time Weisbard gets around to justifying his decision to exclude from the Guide reviews of outfits like the Damned (they released "a couple of key songs...then [refused] to stop releasing pointless albums") and Metallica (which "once seemed alternative" but "somewhere along the way merged back into rock"), he essentially waves the white flag when it comes to explaining away contradictions. "Alternative lacks strong boundaries," he writes. "But we had to draw the line somewhere."

On the surface, this concession would seem to render the Guide pointless--and as an effort to classify something even Weisbard regards as largely unclassifiable, it is. But what this ambitious effort lacks in cohesion it more than makes up for in open-mindedness. To wit: Although the lion's share of the book is filled with critiques of punk, new-wave and modern-rock albums, it also contains a generous collection of items on worthy sorts that have only the most peripheral connections to these traditions: Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill and Sun Ra, for instance. There is also space dedicated to rappers of note, as well as to acts that are seemingly antithetical to them (like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who is endorsed as warmly as is Nirvana). Such juxtapositions carry an important message--that while alternative music seems to operate within a narrow range, it needn't be a slave to categorization. Moreover, listeners needn't, either. If they give different kinds of music a chance, a lot of them will be surprised how good it sounds.

That's the subtext of the Guide, and if it makes one person into Helmet check out Henry Cow, the English art-rock band whose blurb follows Helmet's alphabetically, it'll justify its existence. Many of the opinions expressed by the raft of analysts employed deserve to be questioned, and no doubt they will be. But what's more important is the work's inviting tone. Weisbard may not be able to explain "alternative," but his Guide provides plenty of them. And for those who still are confused, well, that's rock and roll.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts