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.

February 19, 2020

Aesthetic morality, Macca and history, hitting a benchmark, "Sweet Home Chicago," working class Wussy and all in the family

[Q] No question here, just wanted to say thanks for all that you do. You've helped me deepen my appreciation for all kinds of music and discover artists I never would've come across on my own. Speaking of which, I'd also like to submit Young Thug's Barter 6 for consideration in the discussion of all-time great album titles. Okay, fine, a question--how do you balance aesthetic and moral judgments when grading the quality of an album? -- Ben, Grand Rapids, Michigan

[A] For me, the moral is inextricable from the aesthetic. Maybe that reflects the fact that my aesthetic has more pleasure than beauty in it, although both these grand experiential abstractions should be in quotes because defining either is impossible. But this far we can go--the moral impinges on pleasure more than it does on beauty, because pleasure is more subjective than beauty. It's experienced from within rather than observed from without, although we do take ("subjective") pleasure in ("objective") beauty. Thus I've never been able to enjoy or even appreciate D.W. Griffiths's mise-en-scene in the morally odious Birth of a Nation, or found any use for Toby Keith's lynching bagatelle "Beer for My Horses" no matter how much Willie Nelson loves it.

[Q] I'm a millennial. I've only known Paul McCartney as pretty much the most important musician alive. So, I'm trying to piece together how people thought about him in context during his prime years, and particularly why people disliked him. Was there an ethos about him that turned people off? Was it because, compared to John, he was pretty much apolitical? Maybe people just thought he was a dork. -- Sam P, Minneapolis

[A] First of all, you don't have to hate Paul to think it's silly to view him as "pretty much the most important musician alive" in a time that also included Bob Dylan, James Brown, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Prince, etc. But in any case you're misapprehending how it was in the Beatles years. Maybe some people preferred the Stones--that was always an argument. Dylan, too. Maybe even Miles Davis, although among white listeners rarely then James Brown. But Beatles fans, which was most of us, usually had a favorite Beatle and liked them all--for me the order went John-Ringo-Paul-George. And if you liked John best it wasn't about his politics, which were simplistic and not terribly radical back then. It was about seriousness and substance and what we would not then have called soul combined with sharp wit and a hard edge. After the breakup, however, this got more confused and sectarian, not least because none of them made much Beatles-quality music, although I say John's was by far the best and most consistent even so. During what I assume you mean by his prime years--1970-1985, something like that?--Paul was prolific going on facile and a sucker for pothead whimsy. As a marriage fan, I always approved of Linda's co-starring role in Wings in principle, but compared to Yoko, just as a for instance, she was a cipher musically. There were great tracks, sure, but never enough to constitute a decent best-of, especially given the air pudding like "My Love" and "With a Little Luck" any such would be saddled with. The superb covers album he made after Linda died is a great exception, however, and the scuttlebutt about his 21st-century concert tours is impressive. I've come to admire him as a survivor and a public figure, and were someone who knows how my ears work to burn an Xgau-specific sampler I'd listen. But even recently, when I've given some well-reviewed new Macca album a few tries, it's invariably fallen short.

[Q] I just noticed your Substack newsletter is listed as having thousands of subscribers (as opposed the "hundreds" it used to), and I thought I'd take a moment to say congratulations. -- Grade A Grubber, Lincoln, England

[A] That stat is an exaggeration traceable to Substack's practice of calling anything over one thousand "thousands." Between Christmas and New Year's we did indeed hit the 1000 mark, which is much higher than I ever expected this project to go. But one thousand isn't "thousands"--we've picked up more subscribers since, but we're a long, long way from two. Of course I'm gratified to have gotten this far--thrilled, really. But "thousands"--nah.

[Q] Years ago I called into Johnny Otis's Saturday morning radio show on KPFA in Berkeley (he used to broadcast live from the now long defunct Powerhouse brewery in Sebastopol). I was fool enough to ask him what he thought was the definitive version of "Sweet Home Chicago"; more than ready for such a silly question he promptly belted out the chorus, then said "That was it!" and hung up. I figure it was an honor that Johnny sang for me and so I'll ask you the same question, Mr. Christgau: in your expert opinion, what's your favorite or as near to definitive as possible version (studio or live) of "Sweet Home Chicago"? Boldly assuming that you even like the song . . . Thanks! -- Brendan, San Diego

[A] As someone who certainly likes the song and just as certainly doesn't love it, I went to my iTunes and found four versions: Magic Sam, Robert Johnson, Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells. But while Johnson's version obviously has some jam, only Taj's, amply and crucially abetted by the Pointer Sisters, made me want to hear it again--probably because he/they mess so joyfully with what is by now a generic song. That said, the Guy-Wells is also a step above, and cult Chicagoan Magic Sam's seemed markedly more vital than anything I then played on Spotify except Johnson. Order of frequency as Spotify has it: Blues Brothers, Johnson, Eric Clapton, Urban Knights (??), Steve Miller. I can't remember who sang it in the Blues Brothers (Ackroyd? did Matt Murphy even sing?) and am tired of trying to find out. Clapton's version is dull vocally as became the rule as he got older and "bluesier," abandoning the Don Williams and J.J. Cale impressions he was born for. Midway through Miller's version I'd had enough; Magic Sam is seventh in the Spotify queue.

[Q] Thank you Robert for belief in Wussy. I am 56 and have been hauling fuel in and around Chicago for about 40 yrs. I found out about Wussy by happening upon Ass Ponys sometime back. Just wanted to let you know. I get it. -- Doug, Shorewood, Illinois

[A] Thanks. Music fans tend to live in insular worlds. Usually they're students and then borderline bohemian when young, as you might have been or still be. When they get older they make their livings in what I'll broadly designate the information industry--teaching, law, journalism, advertising, promotion, if they're younger tech. It's always encouraging to encounter a fan from a different work world. One of the most enthusiastic Wussy fans I've ever encountered was right next to me at a Studio at Webster Hall gig singing more words than I could have remembered offhand. We talked a little, and he told me he was a cop. Bring your pals was my attitude.

[Q] You've documented how your daughter helped you get the Backstreet Boys and Carola urged you to listen more closely to DNA. I know you always give Carola credit as your second set of ears. But are there any other stories in particular you'd like to share where your family helped guide your ear and how did family influence the music you listened to in your formative years? Also, has your family ever turned you onto films and artwork in other mediums that you enjoy fondly that you probably wouldn't have come across otherwise? I hope you are all doing well. -- Ian Carroll, Skerries, Island

[A] This is an enormous question I can answer only in part. Nina is not as big a music fan as she used to be, but she was always into One Direction, who I, perhaps callously--Rob Sheffield loves them--simply could not hear. But last June she expressed a similar interest in Lewis Capaldi and Capitol was kind enough to get me three tickets--for me, Nina, and her friend Val. Val knew nothing of the man and is no pushover, but she was knocked out, and so was I--live, so hard-working and self-deprecating and kind and, crucially, funny. The funny does not come across as much on record, but I liked his album anyway--he was nominated for one of the Grammys Billie Eilish won and looked a little sad after even though he'd been a longshot, only to recover with enthusiastic applause as I expect is his way and don't believe is at all phony, at least not yet. I also have a sister and brother-in-law living upstairs in my building and always want to know what they think about music--Georgia published rock criticism for years. Steven retired from the law to play as much trumpet as he can. Ga and I have such related sensibilities that I take her movie and fiction recommendations as seriously as those of anyone I know. And then there's . . . Second set of ears? No shit. Now more than ever. I adore Carola for many reasons--many many--but our aesthetic compatibilities are high on the list. When we disagree, which happens, we wonder why and interrogate it a little. If Carola had wanted to be a fulltime critic she would have been a first-rate. But one reason her responses and ideas are so insightful and original is that she didn't, which freed her up to respond at will in a way full-timers rarely can. Insofar as I'm an exception to that generalization it's partly because having her around frees me up--I play new music with her in the room almost every day. Indulge me and follow this link to a review of a Fleetwood Mac concert she covered because 12-year-old Nina was such a fan. Note how skillfully she skirts the fact that, actually, she isn't so much. Note how irrelevant that pirouette remains to any reader who just wonders how the show was.