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.

July 28, 2021

And It Don't Stop.

Generalizations too vast to swear by, instrumentals worth hearing, the algorithm vs. the people, and Frank Zappa vs. George Clinton.

[Q] Re: "Combating the Sound of Whiteness." In reading the piece I came to wonder if you've read Heartaches by the Number (Cantwell and Friskics-Warren, 2003). Specifically how they choose to define a "country song"? -- Clifford J. Ocheltree, New Orleans

[A] I was certainly aware that I was generalizing swiftly and broadly in that piece, and if I owned Heartaches by the Number I would have checked it out, as I did David Cantwell's excellent Merle Haggard: The Running Kind. I was also aware that there were revised editions of Bill C. Malone's Country Music, U.S.A. to which Geoff Mann referred in his essay; I'd read the 1968 version shortly after it came out and have never seen either of the newer ones. But since I wasn't claiming to do anything but review those two essays and had plenty to say about them, with deadline approaching I went with what I had. My generalizations are obviously too vast to swear by, but as more-than-plausible argument starters I stand by them.

[Q] The irrepressible Alfred Soto recently posted his favourite 20 instrumentals in rock. Seems like he had a lot of fun doing it. How about yours? -- Christian Iszchak, Norfolk, England

[A] Without committing to play till the ninth inning, I did what I could to check out most of Soto's picks and was surprised at how few of them worked for me. To choose the biggest disappointments because my tastes clearly run more r&b-let's-call-it than Soto's, neither Sly's "Sex Machine" nor JB's "Time Is Running Out Fast" made me say anything like "How the fuck did I forget that"? The Neil Young, the Bowie, even the Sugar just didn't reach deep enough. But "Tel-Star," "Frankenstein," and not quite as undeniably the Stooges' "L.A. Blues" certainly qualify, as of course does Funkadelic's indelible "Maggot Brain," which Carola and I recall first grokking while we were parking our car in an Akron driveway in 1978 and staying in our seats till it was over, enthralled. Almost as crucial is the Meters' "Cissy Strut." I'd never registered Yo La Tengo's "Spec Bebop" and loved it. I'd replace Eno's "Becalmed" with his "Sky Saw." Pink Floyd's "One of These Days" would probably place. Rush's "YYZ," which it's quite possible I'd never heard in my life, also might. But I think Soto was wrong to leave out all "jazz"--Miles Davis's 27-minute "Right Off," which leads Jack Johnson, is extraordinary and indelibly rock-derived, and not just because it builds off bassist Michael Henderson's "Honky Tonk" riff. Which brings us to the '50s, which Soto ignores altogether. As I've written more than once, it was the hour I spent as a 14-year-old playing side one of my Bill Doggett 45 "Honky Tonk" on repeat that transformed me into the person who became a rock critic. Side two was the hit, one of the best-selling instrumentals of all time, but I always insist that both sides form one composition, still one of my favorite tracks ever. One of Soto's commenters mentions that he also omitted Link Wray's equally influential "Rumble," where you can hear noise guitar being born. And from the '50s I'd add New Orleans sax man Lee Allen's "Walking with Mr. Lee"--and also, just to be contrary, Count Basie's 1956 hit version of "April in Paris," another 45 I bought, which Billboard calculated peaked at number 28 but was bigger in NYC I guess.

[Q] I've been listening to a lot of early Funkadelic lately (Westbound years) and though I'm not a fan (for the most part) of Frank Zappa and the Mothers, I keep hearing similarities, mainly in the eclecticism and lack of vocal identity (not to mention scatological/pornographic fixations). While I can accept that these ideas perhaps have more validity coming from a Black band than a White band (context matters), I am not entirely comfortable with that acceptance. Yes, I agree Zappa doesn't like people or sex (same as Stanley Kubrick) and George Clinton and Co. are more accepting of personal foibles (or at least have more fun with it). Does therein lie the distinction? -- Theodore Raiken, Metuchen, New Jersey

[A] The short answer is of course that's the distinction, although the lack of vocal identity is a meaningful parallel it's sharp to point out on your way to homing in on the formal similarities between the two bands and brands. That said, except for Zappa himself if you like the way he plays guitar, which many do more than me and not without reason, there are no musicians as personable as Bootsy Collins or Eddie Hazel or Bernie Worrell in the Mothers however formally skillful the players Zappa gathered around him. Nor were the Mothers anthemic the way P-Funk was--that wasn't how Zappa rolled, which as far as I'm concerned is one more manifestation of his stingy spirit. To me, 1972's (very early) America Eats Its Young, Clinton's most Zappaesque album, is also easily his worst. Usually there's tremendous generosity to his music, which kept on developing after his Westbound tour was over. And that sort of, well, let's call it spirituality, is one thing I respond to in musicians. The Beatles sure had it. John Prine. In their way both Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Damn right Peter Stampfel. But probably more Black artists: Coltrane, Rollins, and Coleman in jazz, Aretha and Otis Redding especially in soul, in hip-hop the Roots and Kendrick Lamar for starters. And hey: Louis Armstrong! Not that I don't also identify with righteous anger and sardonic wit. Which Clinton also had.

[Q] Terrific review of Michaelangelo Matos's book on 1984 that explains the pros and cons of that era. Your ending, referring to his use of Live Aid as a coda, was intriguing: "To me what happened there was less neat and closed off." Can you elaborate? -- Chris, New Zealand

[A] That quote in toto, after an organizer foolishly claimed that "the sixties had finally come true": "'The new era Live Aid portended, though, had more to do with its many visible corporate sponsorships than any world saving, per se. It sealed pop stardom as another facet of modern celebrity--turned it, officially, into a kind of landed gentry.' To me what happened there was less neat and closed off." Certainly the landed-gentry phase of pop stardom, a nice metaphor, was inevitable without Live Aid, and plenty else wasn't portended there. Most important, Run-D.M.C. gave barely a hint of hip-hop's gigantic future, its starting point which for argument's sake I'll say was the Tupac-Biggie assassinations followed by Jay-Z's late '98 breakthrough "Hard Knock Life" and in 1999 Eminem, still more than a decade off . But in addition Matos's premonitory bows to SST, the Replacements, and the pop success of R.E.M. in particular don't in any way anticipate the way Nirvana's never-duplicated commercial success established alt-rock for a time as a mythic artistic hotbed.

[Q] When I pull up Mukdad Rothenberg Lanko on Spotify, the suggested "Fans also like" recommends McCarthy Trenching, Peter Stampfel, and other artists nothing like MRL. This can only be the algorithm responding to your February 2021 CG--not about stylistic similarities. How does it feel to be so powerful? -- Rick Meyer, Decatur, Illinois

[A] I'm reasonably assured this is not the algorithm per se. It's just people liking and playing the same records because they learned about those records from me. It certainly makes me happy when my fans enjoy some of the more obscure artists I favor, and I know that long-distance friendships have occasionally begun that way. But "power"?? That's not power. Power--of a sort, anyway--might be other critics latching onto the same artists and their readers streaming them too, up into the thousands of plays. How about tens of thousands? That would be cool.

[Q] Why are you such a crotchety, beat up looking goof with a web site from 1997? Can't afford anyone to modernize it? Your taste in music sucks cock! Maybe you do too! Fucker! -- James Carter, Atlanta

[A] Not Jimmy, I assume. Or the saxophone whiz. Oh well. Even so you can say whatever you want about me as long as you keep putting in the hours with Stacey Abrams. Non-Georgians need you more than ever. Go Warnock.