Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Xgau Sez

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

October 16, 2019

Sly Stone versus peace-and-love, Steely Dan's chewy perversity, alt-rock also-rans, and the heroines of boygenius

[Q] Hi, Robert. First, hope you're doing well after your knee surgery. Second, I just reread the late great Nick Tosches's Jerry Lee bio and it still kicks ass--probably the best rock bio ever. Read your Book Reports too and agree with your A grade of Springsteen's memoir. I'd like to know if you consider any of these 4 books as worthy of your A shelves: Philip Norman's John Lennon: A Life, Charles White's Life & Times of Little Richard, John Szwed's Space Is the Place: Life of Sun Ra, Gary Giddins's Swinging on a Star: Bing Crosby's War Years. How about the autobiographies by Donald Fagen, Ed Sanders or Rod Stewart? -- George, Brownsville, New York

[A] First, knee going well. Bends to 135 degrees inside of six weeks, which my musically astute leftwing physical therapist tells me is phenomenal. When I asked him what he attributed it to--I've been pretty good about my exercises--he replied "Luck." Second, haven't read the Norman, though I own it, but the rest I'm for. Tosches's Hellfire is some kind of masterpiece though I liked Rick Bragg's recent Jerry Lee book a lot too. My choice for best rock bio is Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis, and I'm finally reading Careless Love front to back--in laps going back to June--and finding it damn good as well. The great virtue of White's Little Richard is that it's the only one there is, but in this case--pretty solid if perhaps sometimes fanciful, as in the famous Buddy Holly story--that's enough. The Szwed I reviewed briefly and is superb. The first volume of Giddins's Crosby is of Last Train to Memphis caliber except for some of the movie synopses toward the end, the new one arguably too detailed but for me, at least, a revealing and engrossing account of World War II-era America in addition to detailed and candid about Crosby. As for Fagen, Sanders, and Stewart, all are pretty good though the Fagen is uneven and all covered in, how about that, Book Reports.

[Q] Have you ever done much listening to the Boswell Sisters? After listening to Pop Music: The Early Years 1890-1950, I was really impressed by their "Everybody Loves My Baby," Googled them, and was intrigued enough to buy a 49-song double CD collection. It's very eye-opening for someone like me who had never heard them or of them. They were very innovative, even the songs I know from the titles are done to radical rearrangements. And they do a song called "Rock and Roll." From 1931! -- Ken Stillman

[A] Thank you for alerting me to the fact that although I taught the Boswell Sisters my last two terms at NYU, I never Consumer Guided them, presumably because the relevant collections were nothing like recent: Shout Sister Shout and 1930-1936. Because the And It Don't Stop version of the Consumer Guide is much less release date-sensitive, I may go back and break the available music down some time. Yes, the Boswells were great, a seminal New Orleans-spawned vocal group with eclectic tastes and great rhythm who were in addition female innovators in a music even more male-dominated then than it is now. What sparked my interest, you ask? The very first essay in the Donald Fagen half-memoir half-collection referenced just above--which I taught.

[Q] You gave everything Motorhead released from No Remorse through 1916 an A- but you gave Ace Of Spades a B and didn't review Bomber and Overkill. Did you not care for those albums or did Motorhead grow on you sort of like the Pixies? -- Mathias, Maryland

[A] Motorhead got better, sort of like the Pixies. Without having researched the question, I assume they just got tired of their speed-steamroller shtick, as why wouldn't they, and began to generate tunes. Not that there mightn't be an Honorable Mention I missed in their oover. Maybe two, even.

[Q] Good day Mr. Christgau. I was wondering if you could share your feelings about the Monkees and their repertoire. Do you feel that they have been unfairly treated by the rock press for the past 50+ years? -- Matt Latyki, Oviedo, Florida

[A] I treated the Monkees kindly in my very first Esquire column in 1967--but not too kindly, as in the more or less contemporaneous Peter Tork moment in my Monterey Pop Festival piece. I just now played them from my iTunes and thought they sounded OK--fun, some good songs, etc. But that doesn't mean their deification by poptimist contrarians is anything but a perverse absurdity. There are literally hundreds of equally catchy and rather more meaty groups of the more or less pop persuasion.

[Q] In your Consumer Guide review of The Kinks Kronikles you wrote that "Waterloo Sunset" is the most beautiful song in the English language. Considering that it was a bit of a lofty statement made near the beginning of your career, and so much more music in the English language has been made and listened to by you since then, is it a statement that you still stand by? If not, then what has surpassed it? -- Christopher, Hawaii

[A] Obviously, I hope, any such grand generalization is impossible to test empirically, because by the time you've finished relistening to all plausible contenders you've forgotten exactly how good the first one was. Also, I'd have to include pre-rock material in my sample even though I don't have enough of that canon on instant or even artificially aided recall. Moreover, anyone's notion of what constitutes beauty will change from day to day or month to month unless that person is too stolid to feel beauty in the first place. Having thus hedged sufficiently, however, I'd say "Waterloo Sunset" is certainly a strong contender. The only time I've heard it performed live was as an encore at Rich Krueger's September show before an audience of three or four dozen (and where were you that night, readers from closer to NYC than Hawaii?), I found it a thrilling, audacious, powerful move. Next morning I put the original on at breakfast. Carola adores "Waterloo Sunset." She votes yes.

[Q] Merriam-Webster or Oxford Dictionary of English? -- Marcos, Brooklyn

[A] Any serious writer should own a bound paper dictionary. I have an 11th edition Merriam-Webster where I can grab it anytime, as I do whenever I'm unsure of a meaning or spelling, which certainly happens several times a month. Online searches can be useful, especially for recent coinages and insight into the popularity of variant spellings and plurals, but I write in American English and M-W is the authority, not Oxford. I do however also own an Oxford that's probably 25 years old now. Very revealing as regards usage history. What I've written about the history of fun relies in part on the OED.

[Q] There is no question here. This is just an e-mail with Greil Marcus spelled correctly. You're welcome. -- Barry L., Mexico, NY

[A] I thought I'd begin with this no-question question because it's so Xgau Sez-specific, though the joke that Sezzers may recall it references had legs--was cited on Twitter, in fact, as proof that I hadn't lost my gift for the one-liner although I hadn't been sure it was worth doing that entry at all. All of which is a roundabout way of announcing that with a slight push from several advisors I am a) moving Xgau Sez from to And It Don't Stop, as free content of course, and b) running it the third Wednesday of every month rather than every third Tuesday. That said, I should add that I am writing this edition well ahead of time on October 8, two days from scheduled knee replacement surgery, because I have no idea how functional I'll be after the operation, which many have told me involves a disablingly painful recovery on the way to painless full mobility, which I haven't had in that knee for years but which has become more acute since June (although pursuing a stray medical record last week I walked a total of two miles in discrete bits, hospital corridors included). Also, this is where I should point out that the kicker in the And It Don't Stop header, Old Age, while also a joke, was in addition simple candor. I'm 77; that's gonna come up. Maybe I'll even address it head-on sometime. Case in point with no parity suggested: Hall of Fame New Yorker baseball writer and literary generalist Roger Angell's "This Old Man," the prize-winning title essay of a collection he published in his nineties.

[Q] Hi Bob, I'm excited to hear about your new newsletter. But I also wondered whether, since you started doing Xgau Sez, it had become at all apparent that the majority of your readers lean towards rock, old music, and the canon of album-orientated, artist-songwriter music--that is, people who enjoy your writing at least partly from the sense that it's setting up respectabilities and hierarchies based on your intellectual engagement with artists' work (even if that's contrary to your own arguments against pretension, snobbery, "guilty pleasures," etc.). If that is the case, would you be possibly willing to cater to that at all in your new newsletter, with, say, one review per issue of an old album that you never reviewed first time round? -- Lewie Shipton, Exeter, UK

[A] Of course I'm aware of my readership's demographic and taste profile, although I like to think my fans are hip enough to generalize themselves as "male" above all and regret that a little. But I'd add that I get quite a few questions about jazz and African music and hip-hop and also relatively current artists. Without question the new newsletter format, consisting entirely of my fans as opposed to, for instance, some dimly imagined Noisey reader, frees me up to completely suit myself about what I cover, and I'll need to see how that pans out once I've gotten through the backlog of recent releases my three-month layoff rendered inevitable. But even the next few months will include old stuff I would have been chary of covering in Noisey. If both the newsletter and my body last long enough, I can imagine going back to the '60s, before the Consumer Guide began, and homing in on one oldie but goodie a month. But for a while I'm just going to play things as they lay.

[Q] Like you, I love the classic music of Sly and the Family Stone. One of the main messages they pushed was the greatness of racial unity between Whites and Blacks. However, when Sly went off the rails and became a drugged out thug, this message went out the window. Do you believe Sly was sincere in his earlier message or was it just horseshit to sell records? What do you believe was behind Sly's changed viewpoint, which I'd say began with the Riot album? -- Steve Mauyer, Phoenix

[A] I think you've got this wrong in several significant ways. First of all, though I may have missed something, it's not my impression that Sly turned into a "thug"--any kind of seriously violent robber or dealer. He merely turned into a drug casualty, and since he's still alive at 76, he's done better by that fate than many. Not that I much admire the person he seems to be, but those are real distinctions. Second, I believe his first two '70s albums, There's a Riot Goin' On and Fresh, are easily his best albums-as-albums, and though the first greatest hits album is even better, one reason there's an argument to the contrary is that the everybody-is-a-star message of racial harmony and universal love had serious limitations that Stone was much quicker and sharper than most to see through--he was certainly no worse a drug fiend than John Phillips or several post-folk harmonizers we both could name, but unlike those bozos he figured out ways to make art out of his disillusion, art that among other things had smarter and warmer things to say about love ("Family Affair"? wow!) than most of the white druggies who were figuring the same shit out. So yes, I believe Stone was sincere in his early message without believing he was altogether a fool about it, and good on him. "Peace and love" was OK as an ideal and dishonest as an ideology. Lots of '6os rockers fell for it or exploited it and who can tell which? Fewer critics did.

[Q] I've been obsessed with your reviews of Steely Dan over the years, since I've been a fan of them since I was 12 years old. Your review of Pretzel Logic has particularly intrigued me. When you say this is the epitome of their "chewy perversity," what do you mean? -- Hugh, West of Ireland

[A] "Chewy" is a pretzel joke, though maybe in the west of Ireland they don't make big doughy pretzels, only the crisp dry kind. "Perversity" is posed in contradistinction to "logic." Steely Dan's songs are always something to chew over--they don't parse "logically," yet don't seem at all meaningless. Moreover, these guys have a fairly twisted worldview, wouldn't you say? Voila.

[Q] Whatever happened to Deerhunter? You seemed to start to really like them despite your initial misgivings, but you haven't reviewed either of their two most recent albums. Does that mean you didn't like their new releases all that much? -- Christopher, Hawaii

[A] That's exactly what it means, the key phrase being "all that much." With bands like Deerhunter, who I've admired intermittently with reservations--and "until he lurches off in another direction" certainly indicates reservations--I always give a listen. But I also make up my mind pretty fast about whether the album in question is good enough to review or not, and if it isn't let it pass unless there's some compelling reason not to. Possible A albums I put time into; Honorable Mentions I feel free to skip (and will even more in the monthly Substack format). There are too many artists capable of albums that really reach me to expend time on marginals.

[Q] Phoebe Bridgers' recent collaboration album with Conor Oberst excepted, you've never reviewed any releases by the Boygenius trio. Any thoughts on them? -- Adam Hart, Richmond, British Columbia

[A] Releases plural? Boygenius released one EP, which Wikipedia tells me took them four days for four songs. I listened to it multiple times and thought it wan, merely conceptual, dare I say overrated just because people liked the idea of the thing (which I sure did). Of its three members--in addition to Bridgers, the more prominent Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker--I've given lots of time to the latter two. Dacus especially is considered a big deal by many I respect but has never came close to reaching me, and at a certain point you just have to throw up your hands and move on. This was long enough ago that I don't know exactly how I'd characterize her music except to say that I could hear she had big ideas but found her expression, I don't know, flat. Baker moved me more--her determination to address her own depressive tendencies directly seemed both courageous and educational. But in the end I found her too thin to climb into Honorable Mention territory.