Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock Music Is Here to Stay

Joe Carducci is a Chicago boy who put in a good stint at Black Flag's seminal L.A. indie SST before going home again. Lately he's been been trying to "reintegrate the rock diaspora" via a radio format of his own devising, and has also written an important if not terribly good book called Rock and the Pop Narcotic for Redoubt Press (Box 476750, Chicago IL 60647), presumably his print version of SST. Almost everything I know about Carducci I get from the book, and much of it can only be expressed in the negative. Ascending roughly from informed suspicion to helpless loathing, these are some of the things Joe Carducci can't stand:

  1. Rickenbackers
  2. Brits
  3. hardcore
  4. sociology (as critical vantage)
  5. people born between, oh, 1938 and 1957 (you know--boomers)
  6. hard drugs (though pot focuses perception and coffee is a sacrament)
  7. keyboards (as lead instruments)
  8. television
  9. rock critics
  10. homosexuals, especially male homosexuals (a/k/a "fags" or "faggots"--Joe ain't exactly p.c.)
  11. R.E.M.
  12. "image," "fashion," etc.
  13. the Left (which in Carducci's liberal usage includes much of the Democratic party)
  14. digital percussion

There are many other things he doesn't have much use for, especially women (too many rock musicians/fans waste their precious essence playing to them) and music that's neither "rock" nor roots-American (including reggae, disco, rap, and above all that addictive narcotic, pop). He opposes irony, mistrusts compassion, understands rage, and is committed to art. And he has three discernible passions. First, America. Second, a social/economic "class" variously designated "working," "lower middle," "middle," and combinations of the three--ordinary joes. But these are valued less for themselves than for generating the one thing in the world he truly cares about: "rock," or rather, in a turn of phrase he shares with academics and other outsiders, "rock music."

Carducci is no outsider. He's ingested tens of thousands of gigs and records, and he's read with an autodidact's appetite. Unlike most bizzers, radio producers, and record collectors, he's not afraid of big ideas, many of which he makes up himself. Beyond all this, though, what's important about his book is its attempt to formulate an Amerindie aesthetic. For a decade now, the third-generation malcontents veteran scenester Jim Testa has dubbed the Clubrats have been fitfully articulating their tastes in fanzines and other alternative nooks and crannies. Most of them dissent grumpily from the open-minded mainstream of rock criticism--the mainstream represented by yours truly, among others. They like garage bands and/or roots-rock and/or psychedelia and/or metal--in short, electric guitars. They have no interest in rap, much less dance music, much less Madonna (or Bruce Springsteen), and tend to regard college-radio types as trend-hopping, limey-loving careerists. But because their preferences are devoid of theoretical grounding, their collected writings add up to a hash of undigested opinions--opinions that often clash with those next door, for this is an exceedingly fractious little subculture. Carducci is saying: "All right, assholes--if you're serious, here's your program. This ought to be about rock music. Follow me."

The program proceeds from Carducci's Axiom: "Rock music is rock and roll music made conscious of itself as a small band music." Rock music only happens in bands--with very few exceptions, bands that rehearse and play to live audiences. Bands must be genuine collectivities--leader-backup structures are death. Since what makes rock rock is whether it rocks, a good drummer is a tremendous advantage. But these are so rare that many fine bands settle for merely adequate tub-thumping, and usually guitarists rool; the aforementioned keyb is too harmonic/orchestral, and singers aren't to be trusted, because unless they also play an instrument they're "disarmed" in the band format. This leads to fatal overcompensations, as frontpersons divert the audience's attention to such pop venalities as image, lyrics, or just plain songwriting, which in rock music is properly only "a pretext for the art itself," a "fertile base for the performance." What is sought is "a multidimensional simultaneity . . . conjured up by three or four players like some phantom. It rises in their midst and people will pay to witness it."

For Clubrats, the telling examples and sharp musical descriptions that flesh out Carducci's rock music/rock and roll distinction achieve a crucial goal--they scotch the notion that rock includes soul, funk, rap, and other genres that Carducci, while counting as seminal the innovations of Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, and Blood Ulmer, shunts off into the limbo of black pop. Unfortunately, the musical overview goes on for only 25 pages, leaving many questions unanswered. Instead of explaining how electric guitar sonorities separate rock's multidimensional simultaneity from jazz's, or generalizing about rock's hard-driving rhythms without resorting to the jazz-linked term "swing," Carducci promptly launches a rambling diatribe against television, boomers, and especially rock criticism that goes on for 125 pages. Since I don't have space to respond to the diatribe (which is marked by a few flashes of grace, many solid points, and an abundance of muddles, errors, and misconceptions, several involving yours truly), you'll have to believe that my chief objections are those of an editor who's worked to improve many polemics he didn't agree with. Any iconoclast will obsess on the conventional wisdom he or she wants to shatter, and having worked for an indie with a press list as long as a dinosaur's dick, Carducci feels an understandable need to explain away the continuing obscurity of Saccharine Trust. But structurally, these proportions are fucked--especially since Carducci, while by no means an unperceptive social thinker, is a more original observer of rock music than of what is called mass society.

If I could only give him one bit of editorial advice, though, it would be this: don't hang a polemic off a definition. Not counting his political attack (and while I can't make out Carducci's own ideology--libertarian capitalist, probably--I doubt that his anti-leftism will convert the passively apolitical to incoherently prog Clubrats), his argument with rock criticism basically goes, "Since I have established beyond a reasonable doubt that rock is this, how can you call yourself a rock critic?" But like they say in the funny papers, you can call me anything you want as long as you don't call me late for chow. Personally, I'm much less attached to the locution "rock critic" (Brits often go with "music writer" or even "pop writer") than I am to "rock and roll," the name I use to designate the music I like best rather than "rock" or, please, "rock music." One consequence of the backbeat craze that transformed the pop world in the '50s was indeed a self-conscious, folk-based small-band music, and Carducci can have the term "rock" for all its exfoliations if he wants. But there were countless other consequences--Tin Pan Alley hybrids, producer auteurs, songpoets who traded their acoustic guitars in on studio bands, ethnic hybrids, black-pop subgenres galore. I like most of 'em fine, and if the Academy determines that that makes me a "rock and roll critic," I can deal with it. It won't happen, though. One reason Carducci and I prefer America to France is that it has no Academy--only the free marketplace (cough cough) of ideas. So I guess he'll just have to keep plugging.

I hope he does, too--I'd prefer he weren't a flaming homophobe, but sexual health has never been a precondition of musical intellect. This is somebody who's thought a lot more about how guitars sound than he had room for here; "The Psychozoic Hymnal," the decade-by-decade, band-by-band pantheon-plus-also-rans that fills his last 110 pages, barely gets him started. Even more impressive is his capacity to hear rhythm and render what he hears in words that both describe and signify. I'm on the other side of the digital percussion debate, which is so vexed that Carducci himself hedges it some--he predicts the next technological phase will attempt to synthesize "feel," and gives some respect to hip-hop's studio smarts. But because it's ecologically naive to assume that the usable store of recorded beats and sonorities is infinite, the Clubrat position deserves better than the tough-guy nostalgia it usually gets, and when Carducci details Bad Company's or Black Flag's thrust, better is what he provides. Carducci possesses that invaluable critical apparatus, a unique yet legible sensibility. Reading him inspires me to listen to guitar bands with new ears--with hope. I know Carducci probably loves Robin Trower because Trower's musical thoughts hit him at a vulnerable (and probably drug-enhanced) moment of his adolescence, filling some formal or expressive vacuum young Joe happened to have obsessed on. But next time I get to over to mini-storage I plan to dig out my Robin Trower albums anyway.

Carducci is here to tell you that aesthetic rarefaction isn't a high-brow preserve--that after enjoying a brief commercial ascendancy in the early '70s, the unprecedented and often quite subtle formal elaborations of small-band electric-guitar music were driven underground, as the metaphor goes, by pop oversell and critical neglect, and are now kept alive by an inchoate passel of unclassy hangers-out and testosterone-crazed arena-rock fans. For this he deserves the attention of every disgruntled clubgoer out there, even though very few of them are smart enough to know when he's being stupid. In my fondest fantasy, one of them will combine Carducci's rockism with the intensely Brit rockism next door of Simon Reynolds. This imaginary sage would tell us non-Clubrats a lot we don't know about a lot of guitar bands--how they sound and what they mean. I've always been a pop person in both the Chuck Berry and Andy Warhol sense, and I continue to place a considerable portion of my faith in the pleasures of the obvious. But every popular music is subject to the kind of rarefication Carducci celebrates, and I want into that as well.

Village Voice, June 18, 1991