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 17, 2021

And It Don't Stop.

The UC Davis writers' enclave, baseball movies worth a swing, respecting the Dead, Virgil Thompson and Harold Bloom vs. the hoi polloi, the plot against democracy, and underestimating evil

[Q] Davis is fast becoming your favorite writers' enclave. I wonder if Joshua Clover and Kim Stanley Robinson know each other. -- Michael Heath

[A] They do indeed. Last time I talked to Josh, at the Pop Conference a few years ago, I brought Robinson up because I was newly infatuated and aware that they both resided in the same burg. Josh told me he knew Robinson, called him "Stan" the way Jonathan Lethem had when I emailed him with a similar query, and not only that--they were getting together the very next week, where Clover expected to school him some on economics. For sure there's plenty of economics in The Ministry for the Future. How much of it is marked by Clover I have no idea. And whaddaya know? At around the time this query came in The Paris Review was publishing Clover's praise of Robinson's novel. And as a bonus here's a Paris Review Q&A about Roadrunner.

[Q] Would you tell us about your opinion of baseball movies? Are they realistic? Writing as an outsider and not knowing but realising that any movie made about soccer is usually pretty s*** makes me wonder do you have the same feeling about your national sport -- Hugh, West of Ireland

[A] "Realistic"? Having spent approximately 15 minutes of my life in a major league dugout (profile of underrated Mets shortstop Rafael Santana, 1987 or '88 I think), I have no way of judging. But I can call to mind many convincing, insightful , and/or entertaining baseball movies. I guess my favorite is the hilarious but also incisive and exciting Moneyball, about assembling a winning Oakland A's team on a zero budget, based on a book by Michael Lewis, whose The Big Short inspired an even better movie about the 2008 mortgage scam crisis. And just recently Carola and I streamed and enjoyed an impertinent documentary called The Battered Bastards of Baseball, about a nutty yet winning minor-league team constructed from scraps when I forget which major league team pulled its franchise from Portland, Oregon. But there are many others: A League of Their Own about a women's baseball league; The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, about a team of touring ex-Negro League players; Bang the Drum Slowly, starring my once-great Dartmouth downstairs neighbor Michael Moriarty and a young Robert de Niro and based on a Mark Harris novel; the only slightly watered-down Jackie Robinson biopic 42; the much older b&w Fear Strikes Out, about the great bipolar Red Sox centerfielder Jimmy Piersall; the kiddie comedy The Bad News Bears. For some reason I've never seen the renowned Field of Dreams, which I suspected and indeed still suspect of pretentious sentimentality, though I'd probably watch it were it to stream free somewhere. I've never seen the Lou Gehrig biopic The Pride of the Yankees either. Is there a Babe Ruth one I'm forgetting?

[Q] How do you feel about Dead and Company or just the current rise in popularity of the Grateful Dead? You seem to have been an early fan based on your reviews of their first few records. I know they've built a dedicated fanbase over decades but it seems like their presence and influence has risen a lot in musical circles in the last few years imo. -- Brian, Atlanta

[A] I was one of the few rock critics who was a big Grateful Dead fan in the late '60s and early '70s--most crits found them too slack, too soft, too arty. I still play the early records I recommended. I think you're right that they're finally getting the respect they deserve, and I'm glad. But if you'll take a look at those CG reviews you'll find that in my opinion the Dead pretty much stopped making good records as long ago as 1972. Obviously there's a critical mass of Deadhead cultists who are content to spend their time culling the inexhaustible steamer trunks of live tapes out there, and if you'll glance at my site you'll see I've singled out a few good ones. But in my opinion those are rare, as I know in part because me and my family more than once patronized a Puerto Rico getaway called the Grateful Bed and Breakfast where Dead tapes played nonstop in the common room without ever engaging my full attention for more than the occasional minute or fondly remembered song and even took a few home on the proprietor's say-so, none of which stuck with me. Moreover, if I miss a few I still have plenty of Dead to listen to, especially since Carola will occasionally dance around to one. So I can definitely live without Dead and Company myself. I don't begrudge them their audience, far from it. But especially after that inconsequential Bob Weir album of a few years ago, I feel not the slightest need to keep up. For further reading, take a look at these two pieces, the first collected in Any Old Way You Choose It and the second in Book Reports.

[Q] Virgil Thomson: "The whole concept of 'mass culture' is obscurantist. Does Shakespeare or Beethoven lose quality through becoming massively available? No. Are populations elevated by being massively subjected to base literature, obscene photographs, and trivial shows? Again, no. Then, to speak of our enormous facilities, through publication and radio, of distributing art, information, and entertainment as a sociological phenomenon to be worried over under the name of 'mass culture,' but not really to be changed or controlled, is not a culture concept at all but a political one." Opinions from "Public Intellectual" Christgau or from "Reigning Dean" Greil? I wonder. -- Coco Hannah Eckelberg, Key West, Florida

[A] This is ancient history by now, history of less interest to my friend Greil than to me, just as Thomson is of less interest to me than to my friend John Rockwell, who wrote the introduction to the 1984 paperback edition of the Thomson anthology I've never found it in myself to explore. Thomson was a classical composer who was also a renowned music critic; he's thought of as openminded if not visionary for saying nice things about Gershwin and admiring jazz from a distance I'm too ignorant to estimate. The "mass culture" to which he refers was a big terminological deal in the '50s and '60s. In 1969 I spent two-three months in Room 315 of the Fifth Avenue library researching the intellectual fad called "mass culture theory" because I conceived myself as a champion of what I preferred to call "popular culture," which Ellen Willis and I had a contract to write a book about only then we broke up. Greil was an American studies visionary who didn't know much of that literature when we met; my recollection is that he was barely aware of early popular culture champion Gilbert Seldes although he knew plenty about Seldes's equally important contemporary Constance Rourke. "Mass culture theory" was so snobbish it was atrophying big-time by the mid '70s. The Thomson quote scoffs at an especially nutty iteration in which "high art" was sullied by the very fact of distribution via "mass media" to hoi polloi incapable of appreciating its ineffable spiritual superiority; in addition, it evades the musical complications by going on to specifically disdain only "base literature, obscene photographs, and trivial shows." Wonder what he thought of I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners. How about Raymond Chandler or, lordy, Grace Metalious. Don't know, but fear the worst.

[Q] The late literary critic Harold Bloom seemed to believe that it was better not to read at all if you were not willing to challenge yourself with books that were intellectually and artistically valuable. He often stated that the promotion of certain popular but less-than-profound books by the cultural critics actually led to the dumbing-down of society. (Specifically, Harry Potter, among others.) The only time it was acceptable to read a populist (i.e. aimed at ordinary people) novel was if it led to reading books of greater merit. Would you apply the same philosophy to music? Do you believe that listening to say, Journey, can actually erode the mind and spirit? Make a person less intelligent? Certainly, some albums, as with some books, are more important and valuable than others. However, is there anything wrong with listening to Oasis even if it does not lead you to the Beatles? Can the existence of Phil Collins music actually be making us worse off? Or is there no comparison at all? -- Barry Lane, Mexico, New York

[A] I wouldn't apply the same philosophy to music because I think it's utter horseshit applied to books. I've never read Harry Potter and probably never will, but only because it's long and I'd rather read/reread Dickens and not because anything I know about it indicates that it dumbed society down whatever her deplorable prejudices against transgender people. I wouldn't think of describing the many smart people I know who have read it, some intellectuals but others not, as "dumbed down" or whatever fancier way Bloom would have put it. On the contrary, my guess would be that it made people smarter whether or not they went on to Flaubert or Yeats or some postmodernist I can't even name--did so just by persuading them to live vicariously in a world they couldn't see, smell, or touch. One way I explain the breakdown of American democracy is that my opposite numbers on the right are resistant to abstraction. But I regard that as at least as much a spiritual as an intellectual dilemma. Evangelical Christianity, the intellectual locus of many of today's fascists-in-training (with a big fat boost from protofascist social media, of course) teaches or tries to teach its adherents to extend their charity--by which I mean feelings of love and compassion rather than the donations that may ensue as well--not just to human beings within their literal physical ambit but human beings they're aware of at an insuperable physical distance. When I read about gays bashed or women forced to bear children they're not ready to raise or people of color subject to all manner of concrete physical, social, and economic abuse, I feel for them as imagined individuals, and one institution that taught me to do that was the born-again church I attended with ever-increasing skepticism into my teens. Over the years I've heard many stories of individual Christian conservatives helping alien others and as an impecunious young man hitchhiking America in the early '60s experienced such acts myself. The disappearance or cooptation of that impulse on a societal level dismays and frightens me.

[Q] The recent "Let's Go Brandon" soundbite that's become a pathetic dogwhistle just reaffirms what I hope we all already knew: that Trump supporters and the alt-right are by-and-large not only incredibly stupid, but also astoundingly delusional. However, do you ever struggle with not wanting to generalize a massive category of people, even when you're given nothing but proof-positive of such generalizations? -- Nick Jayne, Gray, Maine

[A] I think you're wrong in several respects. First, I don't think the "Let's go Brandon" thing--which I should make clear to those who don't know, as I'm sure some readers don't and why should they, has become alt-right code for "Fuck Joe Biden"--is pathetic. It's a self-evidently effective ploy, one among many, to cheapen political discourse, a fundamental alt-right ploy from Steve Bannon down to Trumpers as stupid as you believe all of them to be, which I do not. Mean, cruel, sometimes purely evil--I'll take those pejoratives, but only if it's understood that not all apply in many and maybe even most instances. Some are stupid for sure--there's stupidity everywhere. But don't kid yourself, because many are far from it. They mean to subvert electoral democracy, sometimes out of ignorant resentment of often better-educated people like you and me for whom tolerance and compassion are bedrock values, but at least as often out of a well-calculated self-interest that too often includes white supremacist hegemony--which, and this is crucial, does not mean they themselves are devoid of tolerance and compassion in their own day-to-day behavior, as is clear to any honest person who, as I just noted I did, grew up among the born-again Christians who make up a major component of this demographic. They have an all too real chance of getting what they want. Dismissing them as stupid is counter-productive.

[Q] Donald Trump? "Evil?" Don't be silly! He's just another pushy loudmouth New Yorker. A burg that's produced thousands of 'em stretching from Peter Stuyvesant (1592-1672) on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on to yesterday's New York Post. Trust me. -- Cedric Hugo Endter, Lake Bluff, Illinois

[A] Why should I trust you? On the evidence you're a jerkola with attitude. True, appearances can be deceiving--maybe moving to New York would tone up your brain a little. Having argued that not all Trumpers are therefore evil I will now assert without the slightest hesitation that Donald Trump is. I hope I live to see him die, the sooner the better, and on that day I'll go out on the streets and whoop and holler. But for the record I don't like Peter Stuyvesant either. He was worse than many although by no means all of the so-called founding fathers. But at least his heirs planted some gorgeous pre-revolutionary trees my wife and I live close enough to his old homestead to enjoy on a regular basis. Stuyvesant Park surrounds Second Avenue twixt 15th and 17th Streets. Check them out if you're in the nabe. Our fave is the big elm-I-think in the southwest corner of the eastern park.