Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Outside Rock and Roll

Rock and roll proper produced its quota of notable books in 1997, including Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic, Gilbert S. Rodman's Elvis After Elvis, and Mikal Gilmore's Night Beat. But rock fans can learn just as much from two whose subject matter is more peripheral: Space Is the Place, John F. Szwed's biography of the eccentric jazz bandleader Sun Ra, and Air Guitar, art critic Dave Hickey's collection of 24 "Essays on Art & Democracy."

From his chair in African American Studies at Yale, longtime jazz critic Szwed is well equipped to resist the temptation to turn a musician's life story into annotated discography. This is fortunate not just because Sun Ra was a tape-recording fool who released some 200 albums, but because his teachings and lifestyle were as significant as a musical legacy Szwed persuasively describes as major. A great American autodidact, a de facto guru who headed one of the longest-running communes in American history, the spiritually voracious insomniac (born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1913) concocted a worldview out of cabalistic Egyptology, space travel, and early swing. And thus Space Is the Place serves as a knowledgeable introduction to the Afrocentric mindset that has informed thinking hip hop since the dawn of Public Enemy and KRS-One.

Without downplaying how fanciful they might seem, Szwed refuses to judge the ideas of a man who concluded, long before the postmodernism fad, that truth "was always the consequence of language and the result of some exercise of power." Instead he calmly sums up them up in all their multivalent glory, celebrating social and artistic consequences that were never hemmed in by small-minded racism or avant-gardism. "Since everything that's possible has been tried, we need to try the impossible," Sun Ra liked to say. Then he would do it.

Sun Ra obviously lived a life of art. But after all, Dave Hickey argues, so did the declasse junkie trumpeter Chet Baker, who died with gigs to play, leaving behind 58 albums that remind Hickey of the Ramones and Little Feat. And so in their ways did Liberace, Hank Williams, Hickey's Rolling Stone buddy Grover Lewis, and this wrestler he knows named Lady Godiva. Hickey is a spectacularly eclectic intellectual-cum-fabulous-character whose motto is: "Good taste is the residue of other people's privilege." He loves paintings so much he once dealt them, but he also did time as a Nashville songwriter and seems oddly familiar with other kinds of dealing. In a word, one he likes a lot, he's a freelancer, even now that he's got a teaching job in Vegas. And while he's capable of highbrow language (he was into Foucault before the postmodernism fad), he's also absorbed the discipline of the Nashville songwriter, rendering his unconventional judgments on everything from Flaubert to custom cars to sunsets to "The Delicacy of Rock-and-Roll" in a pungently epigrammatic prose that can make a fella laugh out loud.

For all his pop passions, Hickey is sometimes too much of a bohemian snob. But his worst is none too bad, and always worth engaging. As enjoyable and provocative a book of criticism as anyone's published in years.

Rolling Stone, 1996