Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover


Way back yonder in the '60s, I felt like I had put something over. With the willing connivance of The Village Voice, Newsday, Esquire, and The New York Times, I was publishing serious writing as journalism. This meant first of all that I was getting paid, albeit not much at the Voice (or the Times, which to this day fobs freelancers off with status). But what was even peachier was interacting with an audience--shaping one of my own as I accessed the readerships of the periodicals I worked for. Getting paid was a day-job equivalent that saved an impecunious young bohemian from burning the midnight oil at both ends. For the work per se, however, interacting was even better, a point I never stopped harping on in my criticism: "School Day" wouldn't have happened if Chuck Berry hadn't targeted the teen market, and "Tulane" wouldn't have happened if the then-fortysomething reprobate hadn't become a doper darling. Since I was only a critic, I could think smaller, and since there was precious little informed rock coverage to compete with, I could afford to assume the best. So I tried to take my cues from the informal intelligence of the music I loved most and let anyone who didn't like it lump it. My payback to readers who stuck with me was knowledge and pleasure--writing that nailed nuances, kept things moving, and threw in a few laughs just for laughs. And, oh yeah, writing that did the quotidian work of journalism--that reported the news and got the story.

Since my criticism also argued that pop forms, a/k/a commercial constraints, were good for art, the way my own story turned out wouldn't have surprised me, and doesn't. I'm proud I was "serious"--proud I laid out ideas, tweaked language, extruded persona, and gave equal time to my natural enthusiasm and my natural skepticism. If I hadn't been serious, I wouldn't be looking back on these pieces today, and God knows neither would you. But as I go through them again, it's their journalistic factuality that stands out. Since we've now reached the point where the '60s are history--not just dead and gone, but an academic industry whose bibliography no one leaves alive--I'm gratified to find myself the author of a you-are-there sourcebook with some good ideas in it. Although rock was the cultural glue of the '60s by acclamation, few historians have the chops to write about it in any but the most received and general terms. In contrast, Any Old Way You Choose It is proactive and specific--an on-the-spot account of an art form, culture industry, and social formation in progress. The author is a sympathetic participant-cynic. The book is far more reportorial than he perceived at the time, and even when the writing seems naive, which is less than he feared, what it leaves out and what it chooses to mention say a great deal about just exactly how America was surprising its citizenry at the time.

If Any Old Way You Choose It was more reportorial than I knew, it was also more diaristic. Far from the meticulous observation championed by Tom Wolfe, the "New Journalism" with which rock criticism was associated was notorious for its subjectivity. So as soon as the culturati's counterattack on the counterculture revved up circa 1972, the first-person came under fire as one more dire consequence of the nonviolent toilet training that had wreaked so much havoc on the body politic. I've moved away from the device over the years, for many reasons--including increased confidence (I'm expert now in a way no one was then) and a realization that critical authority is more politically and epistemologically justifiable than it once seemed (culturati do have their purchase on the truth, and anyway, it's suicidal not to fight them with their own weapons). But I still think the editorial "I" is a valuable tool, especially in criticism, so much of which is rationalized opinion. For me the idea was to identify the angle of distortion in the "objective" analysis any personal narrative carries with it. The trick is not to puff yourself up--to undercut the presumption of omniscience rather than bolster it, although since good criticism feeds off passionate beliefs, things can't and shouldn't always play out that way. That some readers are sure to assume you're an egomaniac, especially if your persona rubs them the wrong way, is an inevitability you have to roll with.

For convenience's sake I've been referencing "the '60s" even though the preponderance of the pieces collected here were written in the '70s. That's because what most people mean by the '60s stretched into the next decade; the McGovern debacle is my preferred cutoff point, with the titanic yet ultimately inconsequential Watergate triumph the runner-up. Or put it another way: what most people mean by the '60s is--let's call a spade a spade--hippies. This book is about hippies and what pop music could and couldn't be for them, by which I don't and do mean us. I looked like a hippie--I dressed sloppy and wore my hair long (until 1980, actually). But I didn't feel like a hippie, and so I hope to remind both nonparticipants and rewriters of history that the counterculture wasn't merely heterogeneous, that comforting bromide, but split down the middle--or rather, down one side, for the political part was nowhere near as big as the hedonistic-to-quasireligious apolitical part where true hippies could be found. Partly because I was brought up to take Christian virtues literally by parents who never thought less of or for themselves because they didn't have much money, but mostly because the left was where the ideas were, I was down with the politicos. I had numerous differences with the Movement, most prominently my commitment to popular culture and its capitalist ways. But I also felt committed to radical social change.

Does this mean I was so foolish as to believe rock and roll was "revolutionary"? I'm happy to say that the 1970 essay "Rock 'n' Revolution" proves I wasn't. For my purposes, this was a relief. Though friends I loved urged otherwise, I could never think of myself as a revolutionary or of America as ripe for revolution. What I did think, however, was almost as palmy, and since it's only suggested in what follows, I'll try to lay it out here. Underlying all of the pieces I was writing at this time, even for Newsday on suburban Long Island, was the hope that audience could become community and the idea that at the very least it constituted a metaphor for community. And community is putting it mildly--commonality is more like what I had in mind. Revolutionary or not, I believed then what I believe now--that progressive transformation could only be effected by collective action, which presupposes collective consciousness. My mistake was taking this a slippery step further. What better to provide such magical stuff, I asked myself, than the glue of the '60s, with its power, as I put it as late as 1972 in "John Lennon's Realpolitik," to "broaden fellow-feeling, direct energy, and focus analysis"?

So at the start of the book there's Otis Redding's Monterey "love crowd," and at the end there's the New York Dolls lighting up the Mercer Arts Center--and scaring "the rich, classy men who own the big record companies." In between, there's not only "Rock 'n' Revolution" but, shortly thereafter, "A Musical Weekend," about the dispiriting nonevent that was Monterey II, which next to the Chuck Berry is my favorite piece in the book. Nor was the audience metaphor altogether dependent on festivals, clubs, and other physical sites, crucial though they may be. I also meant to map the purely imaginary inner space shared by people of disparately similar backgrounds listening in private to the same music at the same time. So I closed the book with my favorite singles of 1972, a year when I was driving out to Nassau County all the time. By 1974, with Gerald Ford the new boss and my job as Voice music editor a few blocks from my door, my radio time would shrivel to nothing as my musical appetites expanded to encompass the Voice bailiwick. First I rediscovered jazz. Then I sampled downtown minimalism. And before long I was hooked on the style I'd been waiting for, punk, which helped speed pop radio on its way toward epiphenomenality--no center even metaphorically anymore.

Punk is presaged not just in the Dolls piece (where, borrowing from my buddies at Creem magazine, I use the very word), but in the one right after "A Musical Weekend." "Rock Is Obsolescent (But So Are You)", unveils the term that has anchored my criticism for thirty years, a term that had popped out of my mouth after a couple of tokes at a Young Lords party a few months before: semipopular music. With very few exceptions--Joy of Cooking, perhaps Mott the Hoople, and of course the Dolls--Any Old Way You Choose It is not about semipopular music. It's about popular music. But as the metaphor of community disintegrates, we know in retrospect that semipopular music is on the way. And once semipopular music flowered into punk, I had no interest in resisting it. Many felt punk crystallized a community far realer than any the '60s threw up, because it was small enough to see and touch, and in its New York variant that community was literally my own--I live a short walk from CBGB. Even in its reactively antipolitical New York variant, I especially appreciated punk's politics, not least because--metaphorically again--they made room for class. Eventually punk would generate the major bohemia of the '80s, the alternative/indie circuit that's still generating counterculture today. But even before it became a lock cinch that it would never galvanize American youth the way the Beatles and Hendrix had, I knew my attraction was above all formal: I loved punk as music, as shortfasttough songs. I've never stopped believing that the form has social content and political implications. Nevertheless, the provisional communitarianism that drove this book was headed for . . . not the junkyard, but a major overhaul.

By then, however, this paradigm/chimera had done the job of any animating myth--it engaged and shaped me as a writer, as a listener, and as a thinking, breathing subject. It was a truth, and whatever the folks at Penguin thought when they put psychedelically polarized portraits of John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, and Alice Cooper on the cover, I designed this record of that truth to hold up as language and ideas. So I'm proud to conclude that it does and 'umble enough not to worry if its virtues have shifted with the years--especially since its journalistic acuity doesn't diminish its critical life. In their time-bound but thought-through subjectivity, the Beatles-Stones-Elvis takes trace iconic power as a living process. "Look at That Stupid Girl" stands as a seminal attempt at feminist rock criticism. The putdowns are choice and prophetic. The Tom Jones review is the best thing I've ever written in an hour. And as a special added attraction, I've appended three entries considered too outré for the first edition: a detailed (though condensed) Cheetah report on two adjoining Wilson Pickett concerts, a description of Jefferson Airplane roiling up the masses, and an appreciation of the deeply semipopular Captain Beefheart.

Any Old Way You Choose It views the '60s through the prism of music--a music widely hailed yet indifferently understood by legions of analysts, memoirists, and oral historians. They saw or remember symbolic insurrection, mass ecstasy, racial healing, mindless escape. But from inside--at least my inside--there was only a gradually stabilizing panoply of shifting possibilities. What started off as a kaleidoscope would eventually turn into something more like a ViewMaster, one of those 3-D slide toys with which we '50s kids used to peer at Bible scenes and pictures of African mammals. What started off intense or spaced-out or utopian or extreme would reveal its origins in the commonplace and the entertaining. Maybe the reason I could never call myself a revolutionary was that I spent so much time thinking about one of the main things my comrades (and many of our adversaries) found made life worth living. I felt how it did that, and though that helped me penetrate the ways in which it didn't, it also kept me cognizant that America would have to get a lot worse before revolution became anything more than a fantasy. In that sense, you could even say rock and roll was counterrevolutionary--because without any question it was something for America to be proud of.

Any Old Way You Choose It, June 2000

Acknowledgments A Counter in Search of a Culture