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.

November 20, 2019

Killer rock bios, the Motorhead-Pixies connection, and the most beautiful song in the English language (as of 1972)

[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.