Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Rick(y) Nelson: How to Change Your Name

In the autumn of 1971 I saw Rick Nelson, once known as Ricky, at one of Richard Nader's Rock & Roll Revivals in Madison Square Garden. Bobby Rydell was also on the bill. We remember Ricky Nelson as bloodless, but Bobby Rydell, who does not choose to call himself Bob, was always the ultimate rock and roll fink, and he still is. Dressed in a turtleneck outfit and making jokes about his incipient baldness, Bobby offered nightclub versions of his hits, slackening the rhythm even more and scatting a tad, and his aging legions loved it. Nelson was wearing purple, and his hair was long. When he interrupted the oldies to sing Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me," which had turned into his first hit in four years in the fall of 1969, people started to boo.

Well, boo-hoo. Rick was so moved by this experience that he wrote a song about it, and after a long while "Garden Party" became his first top-ten song in nine years, and the eighteenth of his career. But if Rick thinks it's selling because it has a message, which it does, or because the kids crave the mainstream country-rock that he and his Stone Canyon Band have been playing for the past three years, which the kids may yet, he's making a big, long-haired, purple mistake. "Garden Party" is a smash because it has a hook, a chorus that catches firmly between your ears immediately upon contact. The arrangement sounds like Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, Sun Records circa 1956--a simple guitar run, with Tom Brumley adding sly hints of excitement on steel. If anything, it is simpler than the music of Nelson's teen-age idol days, and it rocks less.

So maybe Rick hasn't changed as much as he thinks. Typically, the lyric is even and ingenuous and touched with a self-pity that is rather attractive--more like a surpassingly gentle, and sincere, sadness. The lyric explains that the audience didn't accept or even recognize Rick's newer music because he "didn't look the same." Taking a cue from the triumvirate of rock geniuses--Lennon, Dylan, Berry--whose presence at the concert he has happened obliquely to mention, Rick then reaches his foregone conclusion. He can't please everyone, so he's got to please himself.

Well, all right now. Nobody can argue with that. But it misses the point. Long-haired country-rock musicians, having tried nonchalantly to please everyone, and failed, may turn just as casually toward pleasing themselves, but mass-cult geniuses feel the tension more acutely. Impelled to gratify themselves, they are also driven to enthrall their audiences, and so they never forget that in order for an audience to respond to a piece of music, or a persona, it must be recognizable. If the disc jockeys no longer play your single automatically, then you must hang it on a hook for them. And if you have a new image--that is, if you conceive yourself in a new way--then promulgate that new image in clubs, where only your own fans will come, and where they will actually be able to see you, not some purple figure on a distant stage. This isn't to deny that Rock & Roll Revivals attract a lot of guys who would rather drink a bottle of Vitalis or throw it at someone than listen to a Bob Dylan song. But twenty thousand of the furriest freaks in the world wouldn't be able to groove on competent-plus country-rock from Rick or Ricky. H ow would they know what it was?

Ricky was always better than his rep, true enough. Conscientiously replacing his lesser schlock ballads with rockers culled from forgotten albums, United Artists has come up with a two-record retrospective album in its Legendary Masters Series that cuts other so-called Legendary Masters, specifically a small-time legend like Eddie Cochran, all down the line. Nelson's specialty was consistent, low-key excitement. He was really as well adjusted as his persona; he suffered, yes--he wasn't dishonest or inhuman--but life had been good to him, and he never failed to appreciate it. The problem is, that sort of niceness has outlived its usefulness. It may be real, but it no longer speaks to an audience.

A few writers, distressed by the somewhat excessive success of other country-rockers, will tell you that the Stone Canyon Band is as good as Manassas or Poco or Eagles. Uh-uh. Nelson has absolutely no blues feeling in his voice, and although his unpretension may be more likable than the overweening of a Steve Stills, Stills would never write a line as insipid as "Tell me life, what are we here for?"

Yet I do like him more than I like Steve Stills, and I wish him nothing but luck. Here's the scene I envision. It is Madison Square Garden sometime in the foreseeable future. Nelson has swallowed his principles and a lot of Richard Nader's money and is headlining a Rock & Roll Revival. H e comes on stage dressed in burnished buckskin fringe, and his silky hair glistens in the spotlights. The Stone Canyon Band goes into its familiar imitation of the Tennessee Two. In a penitent spirit the house stands and applauds. And they cheer "Just Like a Woman," too.

Newsday, Oct. 1972

Except for rock-critic fan Dave Newberger, who detected a slip in the table of contents, nobody wrote to tell me why Consumer Guide (20) was unlike all other Consumer Guides. A few wrote to insult me or compliment me, but no one, not even industry people, noticed that every record in that CG was distributed by one of two corporations, C.B.S. and Kinney, who between them control about half the record market. That frightens me. I don't pretend to understand conglomerate economics very well, and as of now Atlantic/Atco/Cotillion and Elektra and Warner/Reprise (all one company) and Columbia/Epic do preserve some autonomy and issue creative product--though none of these companies has any better ear for new talent than the competition--but vague echoes of the trustbusters keep troubling me. Economists with enlightening facts or theories are invited to advise.

Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

All My Friends Call Me a Fool Trying to Understand the Eagles