Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Meaning Collectors

How Pop Empowers the Weak, Rewards the Faithful and Succours the Needy
Chris Roberts, editor
Faber and Faber

British rock has always been exceptionally fan-conscious. Maybe the explanation is the same social matrix that produced such interlocking phenomena as teen microcultures, a hyperactive music press, and the cultural studies movement. Maybe it's an economy that keeps youth culture young. Or maybe it's just that the spectator position seems more crucial in a nation where rock and roll was originally an import. But American music journalism has never produced anything remotely like Starlust (1985), in which Sex Pistols biographers Fred and Judy Vermorel made a book out of fan letters to Barry Manilow, David Bowie, Haircut 100, and similar worthies. In these mash notes gone bonkers, craven entreaties are often indistinguishable from empowered fantasies. The fans read their needs into the music with a single-minded certainty humbling for anyone in the aesthetic analysis business--and frightening, I would imagine, for any artist so rash as to read the stuff. There are some things that could make Mick Jagger himself think about retiring to the Shetlands.

Good postsituationists that they are, the Vermorels homed in on extreme cases--people who so resented the perceived dreariness of their anonymous lives that they constructed an alternative universe out of rock's star system. In Idle Worship, former Melody Maker staffer Chris Roberts seeks out fans who know what it's like to negotiate ego boundaries from the opposite direction--all enjoy public identities as professional writers, professional musicians, or both. The "both" might be more remarkable if serious fans didn't now start bands as a matter of course. Indie-rock, it's called--a means of exploring fame as well as self-expression. The catch is, the scale is usually so small that I couldn't tell you exactly how many of Roberts's contributors qualify as musicians without some overseas phone calls. His own memoir, for instance, is shaded in with notes on how it feels to get flowers at gigs or date someone who knows your lyrics by heart--experiences that came his way as leader of Catwalk, an act I never heard of until I read the biographical note. The Americans Roberts enlists--Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Kristen Hersh of Throwing Muses, and Steve Malkmus of Pavement--have bigger names than their U.K. counterparts only because no Brit knows any American bands as obscure as Catwalk.

Self-conscious fans by definition, Roberts's subjects-turned-objects have obviously thought about fandom, and given the unreliability of the format in which you ask reluctant draws and eager buddies to whip up some prose and publish what sticks to the wall, they've done well by their theme. The only dud is a diary cut-up from Mark E. Smith of the Fall, the only filler an encomium to Suede that could have appeared in any Brit music paper between April 1992 and June 1993. Roberts's naked confession of a smitten scribe gauche enough to attend a full week of Deborah Harry shows and Malkmus's fantasy of Eddie Vedder's late-'90s career as a student of Christian mysticism share nothing but intelligence and entertainment value. And while Hersh is almost as idiosyncratic on Patti Smith as Nick Hornby is wrong-headed on Rod Stewart, both are insightful, enjoyable, and satisfying nonetheless. That's the idea here--not to be definitive, however useful a goal that may be in straight criticism, but to give an inkling of how varied the felt, intelligent responses to any artist can be, fleshing out all the ways pop stars enrich people's imaginations and lives.

For the most part, the people in question are adolescents and young adults seeking living metaphors--meaning collectors, the way plastic prisms on rooftops are solar collectors. But not all fans are kids. The most surprising piece in the book leads it off, as headline attractions will--Bono, a megastar not normally noted for for his self-deprecating wit, on Frank Sinatra, one of the dozen or so popular musicians in history to occupy an altogether more exalted pantheon. Unlike most of the contributors to Francis Albert's phoned-in exploitation album Duets, Bono actually met the master, twice. Both times he got very, very drunk, and his six pages, climaxing with the hilarious introduction he extemporized when Sinatra got his lifetime achievement Grammy, testify to the awe that even the awe-inspiring can feel.

Of course, what Bono seems to learn from Sinatra is that stardom need have no limits, which true or false isn't an axiom most of us can put to use. Irish novelist Joseph O'Connor, who happens to be Sinéad's big brother, ends the volume with an even better piece that takes the opposite tack. His subject is the Boomtown Rats. These days, Bob Geldof's punk bandwagon-riders are neither prestigious nor much loved, and Geldof, the only rock and roller ever to vie for a Nobel Prize, seems a rather inflated and pathetic figure. O'Connor understands all this, and although he rightly insists on the sheer quality of some of the band's performances, he also understands that in the end quality isn't the issue: "Tastes change, and times change, and so they should. Besides, a hell of a lot of people didn't like it then. But I did. Big time. His music embodied a worldview with which I felt I had some connection. It opened my eyes to things that had never occurred to me before."

For this, O'Connor will always be grateful to the Boomtown Rats and to pop music in general. And so he should. Idle Worship is a properly multifaceted attempt to convince all of us to share that gratitude.

Village Voice, 1995