Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

We Should Be Together

For the past few weeks I have attended the Alternate U.'s course in Rock and Revolution. If that sounds like a dubious enterprise to you, you're right, and the radicals in the course know it--but they gotta try anyway. Roughly speaking, their purpose is threefold: to analyze how capitalism perverts and vitiates rock, to envision how the music might change in a less exploitative system, and to implement those changes. Since I believe rock embodies many of the virtues of capitalism as well as some of its faults--rather than containing the seeds of the New Culture--my objections to the analytic approach ought to be obvious. But the specific targets of the action projects--the concert scene, the Woodstock ripoff, support for local bands--are good ones, at least in theory. I think Warners ought to give a print of Woodstock to the Movement, but I don't think this goal is best accomplished by calling Jack Warner a pig before spitting ritually in his eye--especially since Warners is now owned by Kinney and Jack Warner is dead.

A few days before the Panther demo in New Haven, several R&R students tried to convince Jefferson Airplane to come to New Haven and abandon its Fillmore-sponsored free Sunday concert in Central Park, which it was feared would split that mysterious entity radicals refer to as "the community." Reportedly, this request caused some consternation in the band, with Grace and Marty tempted and the others reluctant. The objections were more tactical than political--where another group might have questioned the purpose of the demonstration itself, the Airplane apparently raised a smokescreen of petty and paranoid reservations. Now, rock musicians do have reason to worry about being used by politicos: many movement people regard rock as bait, nothing more. That wasn't the case this time, however. Anyway, the Airplane not only has revolutionary pretensions, it sells them.

Saturday night the Airplane played Stony Brook, where Grace reportedly berated the audience for not being in New Haven. They were in Central Park Sunday. As it turned out, the demonstrators were already home. Abbie Hoffman tried to take the stage but was beaten off by a few greenshirt heavies. Thursday night I went to see the Airplane at the Fillmore East. I was stoned and didn't try to take notes, so what follows is in a sense my fantasy. It always is anyway. This sure was a strange one.

The vibes as I walked in were hostile-as-usual. Joe's Lights was screening the scene from North by Northwest in which Cary Grant is attacked by a crop-dusting plane at a deserted crossroads in southern Illinois. Southern Illinois, I thought. That's where the government's special Viet Nam institute is located. Walt Frazier of the Knicks went to school there; so did Dick Barnett. A right-on image. Then there was that shot of Abbie Hoffman and Grace Slick at Trish Nixon's Finch reception, with the caption: "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" And then the tease began. On film, we saw and heard the band singing "We Can Be Together" and "Volunteers"--a little corny, but after all, this was showbiz. The audience was ravenous for the real thing, and stood up as the live band went into "Volunteers." I stood with them.

Grace was wearing one of her bitch costumes--short black skirt, see-through top, black squares covering her breasts, black hair teased and splayed in a crown around her head--and looked like a cross between Jean Shrimpton and the Wicked Witch of the North. She was high--on coke, apparently--and, as she explained later, menstruating. Midway through the second song, "Somebody to Love," she began to complain about the vibes, the standard New York territorial-imperative bad-rap: how can you live like men if you're stacked like rats in a cage? "We adapt," I yelled. Were we going to Washington? Grace wondered, ignoring the same question when it came back from the audience. Wouldn't we just be stacked together there, too? Was the enemy really in Washington? Sure there was the White House, but what about right here--on stage? All of us out there, she said, we had paid money for our seats, and with that money the Airplane hired the Cadillac that would protect them from the crowd after the concert. The cops might hurt us on our way home, but not Grace--not in that Cadillac. And wasn't that weird? And wasn't anyone going to do something about it?

No one did, of course. Grace alternately taunted and teased us throughout the show, secure and frustrated in the certainty that most of the audience wasn't even listening, and that the listeners didn't understand, and that the understanders wouldn't act, not beyond a few catcalls. Knowing all this seemed to compound her self-doubt and bitterness. For if her audience would demand that she give up her Cadillacs and go to all the demos, Grace would do it. She would have no choice, and perhaps she would even like to be denied that choice. Never happen. She told us be was out for herself first, and suggested through unimaginable shields of irony that we'd better follow her example.

There was a cretin sitting two seats to my left. It's elitist to accuse a brother of cretinism, and to do so arouses in me the same ambivalences that Grace's Cadillac arouses in her. Yet in the end Grace went home in her Cadillac, and in the end I say that the guy two seats to my left was a cretin. He was a demilonghair in his late teens with braces that made him sputter when he shouted his love-hate obscenities at Grace. Grace asks for it, of course. She wants to be tougher than any man, but perhaps she's once again hoping in a vacuum that this can change, and out for herself until it does. Sing or fuck, the cretin was bellowing, and so were many other men in the audience. What little real hostility all of Grace's torments could elicit was directed at Grace-the-woman, not Grace-the-class-enemy. And the justice of the radical feminist argument came so clear once again, for how are men who hate women so desperately going to change anything for the better? Grace knows: they don't even pretend to want to.

The Airplane played for over three hours, including an hour of encores. Abbie Hoffman had been there earlier, sitting on the floor in back. I wonder if his fist was among those that outnumbered the peace signs as the band left for the last time. It had been one of those insatiable Fillmore crowds, demanding not just music but physical and spiritual exhaustion, and in the end Grace rode home in her Cadillac while the men began their final jam with a song about women doing what they're told. The crowd loved that, and the bad vibes began to dissipate. Who needs politics when all that musical energy is there to be harnessed? That energy can save the world, right? Yeah, Ralph J., yeah, Jann--save the world.

I'm hitchhiking to Washington tonight, but before I do I'm going to watch the Knicks and Lakers. I really dig competition, you see. It's a delayed taping on ABC: the game will already be over, but I'll pretend that it isn't. I may even stop in and take a look at the Mothers before I head on down to Concentration Moon.

Village Voice, May 1970
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

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