Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover


June, 1968: jazz and rock, California, folk music, Billy & Judy, Revlon

I don't know anything about music, which ought to be a damaging admission but isn't, or I wouldn't be making it. The fact is that pop writers in general shy away from such arcana as key signature and beats to the measure. (Those few who don't run in fear from the English language instead.) I used to confide my worries about this to friends in the record industry, who reassured me. They didn't know anything about music either. The technical stuff didn't matter. You just gotta dig it.

Well, I do dig it, but I'm not sure that's enough. These days, I often suspect that the rock musicians who pride themselves on just such musical sophistication are engaged in a dangerous self-contradiction. The innovations of the rock avant-garde, as it is called, sound suspiciously like middlebrow subterfuges borrowed from classical music and jazz and elevated by an ignorant audience that applauds the novel whether it is bogus or not. Granted, my suspicions ignore legitimate questions of context--whether those borrowings don't have renewed validity for an unsophisticated audience, and whether the pop-rock framework doesn't hybridize them in a truly new way. But most of the classical devotees who think about rock at all would rather it retain its folk vitality and stop dabbling. Those who approve of the new filigrees do so, once again, because of context. Performed by kids who have just discovered them, old modes don't sound so outmoded.

Jazz people, more directly threatened by this rival blues-based music, are not so olympian. Charlie Byrd harrumphs about "juvenile music," and Lionel Hampton complains of "dozens of press agents yelling `rah-rah.'" Just like other old men, old jazzmen can't stand these freaky kids. They resent their unpredictable musicianship and--of course--their money. But their distaste is not universal. Among creative younger jazz players not involved in the more recondite avant-gardism--John Handy, Charles Lloyd, Gary Burton, Don Ellis--there is respect for the seriousness, the vitality, and even the musicality of the best rock. And naturally there is talk of a jazz-rock merger.

These jazzmen want a new audience. When I was in college, five or ten years ago, jazz clubs were filled with college kids. I know--I was there myself--and I know what I liked about jazz. It had balls. Melodic improvisation must have had something to do with it. Swing, too. But my favorites--Parker, Monk, Davis, Coltrane, Coleman--got to me with dissonance and rhythmic tension, with passion and irony. They were physically involving. I liked raucous horns and piano and had no use for guitar or vibes, which I associated with the mostly white cool school, one step up from cocktail tinkle. Even classy improvisers like the Modern Jazz Quartet and Paul Desmond, not to mention demi-commercialists like Herbie Mann and Charlie Byrd and the nascent soul-jazz movement, fell under my all-purpose pejorative: trivial.

Technical competence was extraneous, and it still is. Take Bill Evans's Further Conversations with Myself. Evans, we are informed by the lady who wrote the notes, is a master of "inspired craftsmanship," and I'm sure he is, although the same lady did once warn me that Sgt. Pepper was "a little"--and I swear she wrinkled her nose--"outsy-outsy." Anyway, all I get from Evans here is lamentable attenuation of feeling. I'm not qualified to appreciate his subtle skills. Nor are most of his fans. Even if they are too hip for Mantovani, they buy Evans because he's pleasant. On the popular level this record really is trivial, and what's worse, doesn't admit it.

Rock can be trivial, too, but whereas trivial jazz is decadent, trivial rock is fun. Rock's emotional content is out front, with none of the clever ennui that came to typify jazz singing after Billie Holiday. And it is kinetic. Jazz has lost its grab. Old masters like Monk and Davis seem to repeat themselves; what was once vibrant and compelling has become martini music for Yale '56's, their necks shaved right to the occiput. The jazz that sells--like Wes Montgomery's A Day in the Life--caters to the prejudices of tasty chic just as the Monkees cater to teenyboppers. Only the avant-garde that stretches to the left of Ornette Coleman justifies itself. And it is so insularized it can't expect popular support and doesn't get it. The most attentive popular audience listens to rock.

Jazz artists who pursue this audience honestly--like Gary Burton and Charles Lloyd--do so not by changing their music or interpreting rock tunes. Their adaptation is cosmetic; they wear their hair long and play the Fillmore and the Café Au Go Go. Rock titles on a jazz record are almost certain proof of gold-digging. The classic exploiter is Bud Shank, whose Magical Mystery systematically eviscerates songs by the Association (no easy task), Dionne Warwick, and of course the Beatles; the one exception, a big one, is Steve Marcus, who makes his money in Woody Herman's Herd, on Tomorrow Never Knows. Marcus solos with a competent post-Coltrane sax style, building slowly off the melody into chaos, an approach exactly suited to the rock songs on this record. I especially like "Eight Miles High" and "Mellow Yellow," in which a floozy tenor saxophone holds doggedly to the right notes as the rest of the music disintegrates around it. The rhythm section is loud and rock-steady, and there is marvelous guitar by an unidentified sideman I'm certain is Larry Coryell.

Coryell is the white hope of jazz-rock. Jazz guitarists seem to live in perpetual fear of being mistaken for big-beat twangers like Duane Eddy. Even Wes Montgomery does not exploit his instrument; with no reverb and no real volume, the effect is like that of a piano played exclusively in the upper registers. In this context Coryell was a revelation--a guitarist of unmatched facility and melodic inventiveness who wasn't afraid to wail, and in what was essentially a rock band. The band, the Free Spirits, made one LP, Out of Sight and Sound, and, well, the singing was poor, and the songs--by Coryell, I'm afraid--weren't so hot. Then he joined with Gary Burton, a young vibraharp player of equal facility. I heard them live in March, 1967, and couldn't believe it--I kept looking for the saxophonist, but it was Coryell, doing something with his amplifier. Then, this January, I caught him with the group again, and alas, he had turned into a jazz guitarist, better even than Montgomery, doing rhythmic stuff that was completely beyond me, but with that fatal, involuted delicacy. The hope of jazz-rock ruined by vibes vibes.

Merger from the rock side is something else. The Byrds were inspired by John Coltrane to compose "Eight Miles High," Paul McCartney loves Albert Ayler, and suspiciously large contingents of rock guitarists do obeisance to the jazz giants--Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and also Coryell. Many white musicians are using jazzy brass. And the hip fashion in live rock is long, not to say endless, improvisations.

Despite their volume and rhythmic intensity, these invariably put me to sleep with a headache. Rock has its handful of good improvisers, but the vast majority are just noisemakers. This applies specifically to Eric Clapton, a master of the blues riff and the brief solo who shows little sense of melody, pace, or structure when he goes long. Unfortunately, the audience loves this stuff even when it is nine-tenths mannered showmanship, but even more unfortunately, many of the musicians are serious. Rock has always benefited from its tight format, bearing the same relationship to jazz as pop painting bears to abstract expressionism. But the musicians want freedom now--most often, the freedom to experience how dangerous a little knowledge can be. It's willful to oppose change but not willful to hope that the eclecticism at the heart of rock be controlled organically--that it come from the body and the heart as well as the mind and the will to status. That's why we liked rock and roll in the first place.

In early 1967, when we were hearing rumblings from San Francisco but couldn't tell whether it was an earthquake or just the new subway, I made a prediction: The real music would come from Los Angeles. Big deal. I might as well have predicted that the real cars would come from Detroit. San Francisco's to-thine-own-self-be-true music and the long-haired businessmen from the Southland have combined to take over the music industry from New York. The New Hollywood, they call it, and talk about dynasties that will rival those of the cinemoguls.

I was dubious about San Francisco music before I heard it because I believe commercial strictures are good for pop, forcing artists to concentrate on their audiences instead of themselves--but the San Francisco groups did care about their audiences. They were the hippest in the country, and the quality of that first wave of records--by Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, Country Joe, even the Sopwith Camel--was astonishing. The only exception was Big Brother & the Holding Co., stuck with a schlocky (New York) label. The follow-up, however, has not been so impressive. Country Joe's second album was a vacuous disappointment, and the Airplane succumbed to artiness, going back for more overdubs after hearing "I Am the Walrus" and in general acting petulant. After Bathing at Baxter's was a good record but not as good as they or their acolytes thought. The only follow-up record that makes it completely is Moby Grape's Wow. The group's first record, overpromoted and underproduced, was dismissed as a hype by people who should have been listening. Hopefully this one, which includes a free disc of improvisations called "Grape Jam," will make up for it. The Grape can jam but on records tries to maintain a tight sound, much like L.A.'s Buffalo Springfield, whose Buffalo Springfield Again I consider the best American LP of last year.

The still-burgeoning San Francisco scene is simple compared to the welter of Los Angeles, where everybody seems to get recorded. It becomes hard to distinguish between the honest commercial group (the Sunshine Company) and the trashy one (the Love Generation), the legitimately refurbished image (Del Shannon's The Further Adventures of Charles Westover) and the insulting phony (Tommy Roe's Phantasy). But it is clear that what goes on aboveground in the industry itself is more interesting than what there is of an "underground." Only Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, who released a strange little masterpiece called Safe as Milk before commencing to feud with their record company, seem unequivocally subterranean. A group called Steppenwolf has dug in about halfway, however, and I recommend its first album to anyone who cares passionately about hard rock. Although there is an unfortunate monotony in the group's vocals, the material is excellent, and they like to move.

At the other musical extreme is Van Dyke Parks, whose Song Cycle is what happened when an emergent classical composer was exposed to a recording studio. Parks, who has been a producer and arranger and studio musician, has turned into Charles Ives with a twelve-track console. I have serious reservations about his precious, overwrought lyrics and the reedy way he sings them, but the music on this album is wonderful. One instrumental track, "Donovan's Colours" (also available as a single if you can find it), is literally like nothing you've ever heard, with multiple overdubbing, tape distortions, echo, and God knows what else--music that never could have been created without the record industry. Caution: It does not rock.

The work of the 5th Dimension is also a testimony to the good things that can come out of a studio. Collaborating closely with boy-genius composer Jim Webb, the group is into a nightclubby kind of showbiz music that is not my thing at all. But even though their second LP, The Magic Garden, is slick and melodramatic, it does things with that weary form; "Paper Cup" says far more about alienation than Paul Simon's "I Am a Rock" ever did.

I recommend both The Magic Garden and Song Cycle to anyone who doesn't like rock but is even less impressed by the rest of what's happening in "popular music." But for those whose tastes are like mine, three Los Angeles albums are musts. All are by groups that have recorded before, and all prove that if a group's music is good, it can get better without any self-conscious, Airplane-style attempts at Artistic Advancement. The third album by Love, Forever Changes, is a vast improvement. Arthur Lee has stopped trying to imitate Mick Jagger with his soft voice, and the lyrics, while still obscure, now have an interesting surface as well. The Notorious Byrd Brothers is simply the best album the Byrds have ever recorded. Gone are the weak--usually folky--tracks that have always flawed their work. Then there is the Beach Boys' Wild Honey. Love and the Byrds have to a certain extent elaborated their original styles, but the Beach Boys have retrogressed. That's fine. I have always felt that affection for early surfing music is a sure test of whether you really like rock and roll or are merely an arriviste. Every bit as much as the very peculiar Smiley Smile, Wild Honey epitomizes Brian Wilson. One little nonrock song, "I'd Love Just Once to See You," expresses perfectly his quiet, thoughtful, sentimental artistic personality. Sexual assertiveness is not the only thing that makes good music.

It's hard to believe that so much good can come out of one place. Let's hope it keeps up.

Warning: The folkies are coming up for air; beware of them, for in their hearts they hate rock and roll. I knew it when I observed Janis Ian watch the Candymen do one-half of their incredible live version of "Good Vibrations." They're just an imitation," she sniffed, and walked out.


Case in point: Miss Ian, whose second album proves that it is far better for five brilliant musicians to imitate the Beach Boys in fun than for one seventeen-year-old high-school dropout to imitate Edith Piaf in dead earnest. An abomination.

Another case in point: Richie Havens, the world's first black schlemiel, who has received a standing ovation (from a white audience, of course) for forgetting the words and changes of "With a Little Help from My Friends."

Exception: Leonard Cohen, whose first album demonstrates what "poetic" lyrics should sound like. Cohen is a poet by profession, a somewhat old-fashioned one, and although his lyrics aren't perfect, they are always enhanced by his singing. His voice has been called monotonous, but it is also the most miraculous vehicle for intimacy the new pop has yet produced.

Another exception: Joni Mitchell, who contributed two songs to Judy Collins's overrated-as-usual Wildflowers. They are so good they salvage the album for me, and I can't stand Judy Collins. Mitchell is now recording. I can hardly wait.

Soul record of the month: Storybook Children, by Billy Vera and Judy Clay. Now that integration is beginning to seem like a sentimental chimera, the industry has come up with an integrated romantic duo. Very timely. This adds to the poignancy of what is already a very poignant record, full of lovers' weltschmerz and songs that sound as if they were written in 1958. That's a compliment.

We're Only in It for the Money, the triumphant new album by the Mothers of Invention, sounds like the world's longest Revlon Natural Wonder commercial. That's also a compliment.

Esquire, June 1968
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

Columns: May 1968 Columns: Nov. 1968