Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Room for the Occasion:
Working Professionals Defeat Doom on Two Benefit Comps

Musically, benefit compilations are doomed at conception. Up against the same triple threat as every other collection of new material by multiple contributors--the organizers have to sweet-talk the artists, pray they'll do their best, and make the inevitable mishmash cohere--do-good comps then have to break through the pall of sanctimony, although most activists are too caught up in their own cause to realize it. Sanctimony is what Chuck Berry was put on earth to save us from. Sanctimony and rock and roll don't mix. I'm not so sure sanctimony and gospel music mix either.

So when I learned that September 11 had moved the Voice to revive an old management dream, a CD of "love songs to New York" to launch the Village Voice Media oligopoly into music production, I was real glad I'm not music editor. Sure I helped and kibitzed, but to small effect. Baaba Maal's track on Wish You Were Here: Love Songs for New York (Village Voice), all profits earmarked for the September 11 Fund, began with a call I made, and that was about it. Along with 15 or 20 colleagues, I spent a few hours helping music editor and co-producer Chuck Eddy sort out marginal submissions. Although most of these weren't even submarginal, two ended up on the CD, and neither knocked me out at the time; I was wrong. Later I lobbied for a Maggie and Suzzie Roche song that didn't fly; I was right but it doesn't matter. Wish You Were Here flows so powerfully it's even impressed Greil Marcus, whose low sanctimony tolerance has put him off almost every such compilation ever issued, including yet another new benefit record that beats the odds--his friend Jon Langford's Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project CD, The Executioner's Last Songs (Bloodshot).

Although these records don't provide a template, much less establish a trend, each works in the same unexpected way. I would have assumed the relevant model to be the tribute album, a closely related subgenre also threatened by piety and inconsistency pitfalls only overcome, if at all, by piling on the talent and going from there. The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers and the greatest tribute or benefit comp record ever, Red Hot + Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter, succeed by loosing first-rate artists on first-rate songwriters and adding motivation and concept--Dylan reconfiguring the folk idea with the Rodgers, AIDS consciousness tweaked by a happy confluence of gay camp and postpunk irony with the Porter. Motivation, or is it luck, is essential--see the star-spangled yet soggy Hank Williams: Timeless. But neither Wish You Were Here nor The Executioner's Last Songs has many big names at its disposal. With all respect to Cornershop and Andrew W.K., the major draw on the Voice record is Moby, while the ubiquitous Steve Earle headlines on the death penalty disc, the latest credit for Langford's all-purpose backing band, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. Yet in each case anonymity is a virtue. Populated by working professionals outdoing themselves rather than luminaries exercising their droit de seigneur, both records leave extra room for their occasions.

In crucial respects, the occasions are dissimilar. The campaign against capital punishment is made to order for rock's feel-good p.c.--not as squooshy as world hunger or saving the whales, but, like gun control, all too compatible with a sentimental distaste for violence. Like gun control, it makes more sense as policy than as path to enlightenment; even those of us who can readily imagine a polity with the moral right to dispense with sociopaths or a revolutionary situation in which the good guys would need firearms will agree that we're woefully far from either, hence better off just shielding the poor from switch-pullers and triggermen. But while September 11 also scares up a distaste for violence--I expect that many contributors to Wish You Were Here, specifically Senegal's Baaba Maal and Egypt's Hakim, were moved by something of the sort--it evokes much else as well: patriotism and, for New Yorkers, chauvinism, plus such primal stuff as hatred, dread, revenge, and grief. Except for the grief, none of this meshes with feel-good p.c. But it meshes fine with rock and roll, which has gone for the primal since 1955. And the way The Executioner's Last Songs plays capital punishment renders its rock-inflected take on country music just as good a match.

So the first last song is Brett Sparks intoning the coldest murder ballad in the old-timey canon, "Knoxville Girl," which ends with the vile killer "wast[ing] his life away" in jail--but not executed. Sentimentalists exit to the rear unless you're down with sparing such creeps. Then Rosie Flores pulls out the everyday existential despair of Hank Williams's "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," and Waco Brother Dean Schlabowske transforms the Adverts' "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" from what Marcus once declared a "pure punk notion" into a formally realistic horror story. Some of the covers are more obvious--"Oh Death," "Tom Dooley," "Sing Me Back Home"--and not one is definitive, but laid in a row by these irascible postneotraditionalists they say far more about rage, guilt, remorse, retribution, and human orneriness than the inevitable sermon at the end (which has its uses even so). In its own class is "25 Minutes to Go," the gallows-humor farewell Shel Silverstein wrote for Johnny Cash, swung till it levitates by two guys from the Aluminum Group. Tragically absent is Tom T. Hall's "Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On," in which a World War II noncombatant shoots up the town that called him a coward and greatly enjoys the fried chicken and baby squash at his last supper.

Yet the standouts aren't covers--they're two original topical songs by people I'd never heard of. Chris Ligon's disingenuous ditty about a nice guy on death row feels like a one-off. Christa Meyer and Tim Kelley's grisly, understated, apocalyptic, klezmerish "Hangman's Song," however, has the mark of committed songwriting--when Meyer lilts "Oh, oh, woe is me/The state has put a date on me," it's hard to believe other singers won't follow. If "Hangman's Song" isn't "Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On," here it tops "Sing Me Back Home" and "25 Minutes to Go," and the occasion, first as inspiration and then as context, is why. Stuck between the wicked murder of "Tom Dooley" and the hopeless murder of "Pardon Me (I've Got Someone to Kill)," its categorical rejection of ultimate punishment signifies like Brecht-Weill.

None of the occasional songs on Wish You Were Here have that much aesthetic reach. In fact, having figured half the 18 tracks for direct responses to the disaster, I was surprised to learn that only two completely new songs made the cut: Joseph Arthur's "Build Back Up" and Loudon Wainwright III's "No Sure Way." Instead, people scrambled and recontextualized. On two of the strongest entries, Moe Tucker and Peter Stampfel set new lyrics to old tunes. Ari Upp changed the Cookies' "Don't Say Nothing Bad About My Baby" into "Don't Say Nothing Bad About NY," Afrikaa Bambaataa funked up Melanie's "Candles in the Rain," Uri Caine low-bridged Kander-Ebb's "New York, New York." And often artists just rummaged through their catalogs for something suitable: actual love songs to New York from outlanders the Mekons and Andrew W.K., a Romanes title from Ukrainian Americans Gogol Bordello that translates "Strong City," a Cornershop outtake fortuitously entitled "Returning From the Wreckage," Hakim mournful and Sheila Chandra mystical and Baaba Maal pleading for peace, and Matthew Shipp's 1998 recording of "Amazing Grace," along with Moby's "Memory Gospel" the only previous U.S. release. I'd replace the Chandra with the Roches' "song for the heroes," and although I love Slug I can't hear how the Atmosphere track fits even with Chuck Eddy whispering in my ear. But though you may suspect such a miscellany can only add up to a mess, the occasion, augmented by Chuck's knack for the segue, holds it together.

Chuck was an early fan of rock en espaņol, which I've accused of "kitchen-sink stop-and-go," and that attraction to the disjunct helps him comprehend the incomprehensible event at hand. Mourning and rage, chauvinism and internationalism, sleepless fear and fierce determination--in this leftish workplace, as in much of the city, all coexisted in the wake of the attack, and Wish You Were Here proves that they're contradictions only on the surface. "Memory Gospel," which passed me by on Play: The B Sides, strikes the perfect note of pomo reverence before sliding into Cornershop's unbowed synth-rock, which sets up the faster rockers that follow--defiant, celebratory, and both. Bambaataa provides the link to an emotionally polyglot global grouping, and Caine leads off a quietly disquieted final section. My favorite touch is pure Chuck--one-upping "Amazing Grace," an obvious capper, with an industrial assault by local DJ Lenny Dee that had me holding my ears at our listening session. Called "Extreme Terror," it sticks sanctimony where the sun don't shine.

Sanctimony is in the ear of the behearer, and no doubt there are fools who will try to reduce the unmeasurable man-hours and critical acumen that went into this red-white-and-blue cake to the corporate self-service it may or may not accomplish. I say that in all its noise and beauty, its conflicting emotions and culture clash, it represents the New York I've loved since the coming of Willie Mays. To quote English heiress, white Rasta, Johnny Rotten in-law, and NY immigrant Ari Upp: "Don't say nothing bad about my city." And right now, you'd better watch it when you talk about my paper, too.

Village Voice, Mar. 26, 2002