Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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I remember how I felt when Greil Marcus called to offer me $750 for an original essay about my favorite rock album of all time. I felt as if all my dreams were coming true. Granted, except for the $750 that wasn't precisely how he put it--essay isn't a term Marcus favors (me either; we're journalists, so we write pieces), and the album wasn't supposed to be my favorite but rather, you know, a "desert island disc." For the record (as the IRS agent said to the rack jobber), my desert island disc is probably something by Thelonious Monk--Brilliant Corners, maybe Misterioso--or, these days, Sony's four-CD Louis Armstrong box, which I still know so slightly it could keep me interested for quite a while. Certainly no rock record I chose would be as harsh as New York Dolls. I'd want something that didn't angry up the blood--maybe Van Morrison's Moondance, which I haven't played in years, or some life-music by George Clinton or James Brown, or the right Neil Young, or a Beatles compilation. But nobody asked and I didn't tell. Let the other guys muse about the philosophical and technological pitfalls of the desert island conceit, about palm trees and too much fish, about what "favorite" means. What each of us had been granted was the chance to be paid good money--in 1978, very good money--for a substantial appreciation of music we loved. Finally the world was recognizing our enduring literary value.

Well, fat chance, I knew that--knew the book would never earn back its advance. The opportunity was justice, and all but a few of the twenty contributors had earned it. But it was also a quirk of the marketplace, one of the silly guesses the publishing industry runs on even more than the music industry. In or out of journalism, there was virtually no demand for serious, in-depth rock criticism of any real length, and damn little for criticism period, as Knopf knew: boldly designated "the critics" on the back cover, we were billed--in the classic fudge--as "rock writers" on the front. Stranded wasn't going to change these market conditions--almost two decades later, the demand is as puny as ever. Rock criticism is primarily a reviewer's medium, and although lead pieces are sometimes ceded enough space to accommodate the big picture, they almost never get the focus right--if only because reviews are written on short deadlines while important records reveal themselves over long ones. For essays that don't devote themselves to the artiste's transcribed views on the educational system, a&r weasels, and punk rock's undying flame, your best recourse is academia or fanzines. And without sinking into an old fart's lament for days of literacy past, I'll simply note that good criticism is actively discouraged in both realms.

And that above all is reason to treasure this book. The opportunity was so irresistible, and Marcus's masterminding so astute, that it avoids the famous pitfall of the format, which is that if you ask twenty of the best writers you know to produce something original for a collection, a third of them will end up making like they had something better to do. Some pieces here are less good than others, naturally, and there are a few duds that will remain nameless (pick your own). But the success rate is up around eighty or ninety per cent. If they ever teach Rock 101 like they oughta, such informal, idiosyncratic, yet intellectually legible matchups as Langdon Winner-Captain Beefheart, M. Mark-Van Morrison, Ellen Willis-Velvets, and Simon Frith-Stones will be required texts.

But it's the more freewheeling entries that best suggest something else to treasure: how impiously most of these '60s-based writers conceived the craft of criticism. Nick Tosches tells a scabrously antiutopian tale of the counterculture, Robert Stone without glitz or gore, that barely grazes his designated Stones album. Dave Marsh imagines a compilation that will enable him to achieve orgasm by thrusting his tongue into his cheek. John Rockwell rolls out a superhighway of musical detail about the latest-not-greatest album by a much despised female singer whom Marsh expressly bans from his island, preferring to pound his pud in perpetuity. Paul Nelson commits the intentional fallacy on a bus out of Binghamton. Ed Ward fabricates the history of the r&b group he adores (whose real story, by the way, he tells in the notes to Rhino's Ward-programmed 1994 "5" Royales set). And Marcus himself tops all contributors with a pithy, provocative, fun catalogue that simultaneously defines and undermines the rock canon. There's a profusion of aural minutiae, the sort of formal description cum prose poetry journalism has no room for, and loads of memoir and social theory. The book could be even crazier--Lester Bangs's unkempt hymn to Van Morrison is positively monklike from a man given to recounting General Thieu's theory of rebop and cough-syrup visions of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and there's nothing from the irrepressible Richard Meltzer. But long before self-promoting pomo subjectivism infested the university, these wordsmiths were challenging conventions of objectivity that constricted grad school and J school alike--while insisting that supposedly debased popular works merited the scrutiny and respect normally accorded Shakespeare, Mozart, Picasso, and The World According to Garp.

As I look back nearly two decades, balanced precariously on the crest of an ever-changing music that's now forty years old instead of just-turned-twenty-one, Stranded does admittedly seem very much of its time, for 1978 turned out to be a crucial moment in rock aesthetics. Not counting the Ramones piece by Tom Carson, the youngest writer here by xx five years, and to a lesser extent Willis's on the Velvets and mine on the Dolls, none of the essays pays much mind to the fissure that was right then opening up. I hate to leave disco out of this, but rather than getting completely lost we should take the low road and call the fissure punk--not the ironic brutalism of that style's formal preferences but the disdain for the mass market that was taken for granted by many of its most gifted creators and consumers, who would eventually evolve into the "alternative" subculture. Sure the formulation is contradictory and problematic. Nevertheless, something of the sort really did happen, and you can feel it in these selections. Except for the Dolls and the Ramones, the artists chosen all came up in the '50s and '60s; except for the Velvets and Captain Beefheart, all conceived themselves as pop stars. Take away those four and they all sounded fundamentally similar as well--blues chords and body rhythms were the bedrock of the individual genius with which all of them, from Thomas Dorsey to the goddamn Eagles, worked their materials. Seventeen years later, a younger fan will almost certainly find much of this music classic, but old-fashioned.

I've often fantasized during those seventeen years about the Son of Stranded: Living Albums To Die For I might edit. Couldn't use many of these people, most of whom--Marcus, Marsh, Frith, and myself are the exceptions--don't cover contemporary music anymore. For starters I'd seek out black contributors. Although Marcus might arguably have importuned Ishmael Reed or a comparable outsider, he had little choice--rock's African roots were a truism, but there wasn't a single African-American critic of any note working when Stranded was assigned. (He did well to land five women, only one of whom was writing regularly about music at the time.) But these days black critics are various and legion, which would presumably eliminate one of Stranded's more regrettable peculiarities--which is that the four black albums chosen are also the only pre-Beatles artifacts so honored. It would be nice to encounter James Brown or George Clinton or Public Enemy in this context; rope in a few gay critics, who are also easier to find these days, and maybe disco too would get some respect.

And after that I'd mostly think young. For while I have an old fart's reservations about the up-and-comers within firing range, their ranks have swelled with the rise of "alternative," and many of them are plainly smart--sometimes with a sense of history, which after forty years counts as an impressive attainment even if their story doesn't conform to mine. Accustomed to either the crassness of personality journalism or the indulgent self-regard of the nonprofit press, they might have trouble comprehending the freedom and responsibility of the chance. But cognizant of the tradition represented here whether they like it or not, they'd eventually figure out how to go crazy with it. And for certain many of them would choose a record so eccentric, so deeply unpredictable, that only a little craziness would do it justice. That wasn't the dream I thought was coming true. It's too much like chaos, which rock and roll has never taught me to equate with freedom--like all but a couple of the writers in this book, I envisioned a world that was fundamentally enriched by rock and roll, not a world that would be even worse off without it. At least, however, it's still a world where writers can strive not only to make sense, but to find deep human possibility in the music that lifts us over and gets us through. And now Stranded is back to show them how.

Greil Marcus, ed.: Stranded, 1996