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.

January 19, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

Notes on Ornette Coleman at Carnegie Hall, hope for Elvis Costello fans, no hope for Silver Surfer fans, and Dave Hickey's Greatest Hits.

[Q] I've been hammering the Ornette Coleman catalog of late, particularly Of Human Feelings, which I've liked since high school but had never just felt so right to me. You wrote about seeing him a couple times and in one piece you mention you had been paying attention to his albums (professionally, I assume) starting in the early '70s. How many times did you see him? Where, when, and what stands out among the times you didn't write about? -- Michaelangelo Matos, St. Paul, Minnesota

[A] I've been wracking my brains about this, but I think the answer is that I never saw him back in the day even though I did own and often play his 1960 Change of the Century, which opens with "Ramblin'," the tune I called his "beloved Diddleybeat blues" in my Billboard report on what proved to be his final live performance. There's no record I can find of his playing the Jazz Gallery or the Five Spot, which were my jazz venues after I turned 18 in 1960. But looking around I did find the extensive notes I took on his Carnegie Hall performance for my 2006 "A Month on the Town," which I'll now copy with the warning that my show notes, preserved in files I call giglogs, are rarely this polished. Ahem:

June 16, 2006, Ornette Coleman Quartet at Carnegie Hall. Billed as Ornette Coleman Quartet, meaning Denardo on drums, stand-up bassist Greg Cohen, and an arco bassist named Tony Falanga basically taking a saxophonist's part, but there was also a new electric bassist named Al MacDowell. As Stanley Crouch put it, "In the book of music, the shortest chapter is the one on melody, because nobody knows how to write one." Coleman does. On at 8:06, our seats in Row F on the right, excellent visual vantage, although Ashley Kahn warned that the acoustics might not be so good. Stanley was in the right toward the rear, and ours beat his--he couldn't hear anything but Ornette, Denardo's bass drum and cymbals, and Falanga. I could hear Cohen easily, watching his fingers helped, and all of Denardo's kit, muffled though it was behind a baffle, but not MacDowell, who I also couldn't see, Coleman being situated directly between him and me. (Will Friedwald in the Sun later reported no acoustic problems except distinguishing the bass players--wonder where he was.) At 76, Coleman looked frail in his electric-blue suit (cobalt, Carola said--it looked silk, and shone), charcoal shirt, yellow tie, porkpie hat, and shiny black patent leather shoes. He often sat on a stool, played mostly alto--trumpet adequate, violin scratchy, which I suppose is the idea. Fast ones generally alternated with ballads, with Falanga commonly stating the theme or doing an intro on the ballads. Coleman's tone on alto has just gotten smoother and sweeter, almost French horn-like, and there were moments when Falanga sounded like Ben Webster, but generally the effect was more tenor than baritone much less bass saxophone--maybe he has to play higher just to get some modicum of flexibility. Didn't know the tunes, maybe Ratliff will get them right, but he might have begun with "Ramblin'," a blues I liked a lot toward the end was "Turnaround" I was told, and the encore was of course "Lonely Woman." One ballad evoked "My One and Only Love," one fast one "Mexican Hat Dance," and there were quotes: "Do I Need You," "Blues in the Night" were two I wrote down. Off 9:23, encore till 9:31. Afterward went to Tribeca afterparty--Kahn was driving. Had met the manager and partygiver, Michaela Dreiss, at John Rockwell's 65th. Great Afropop comp on when I got there. That's where I saw Crouch--Gary, who I tried to make my plus one, wasn't around after the show. Talked to Ornette for a while, always a privilege, though his soft voice is hard to hear and he was going on about one of my least favorite subjects, music and memory. He is 76, after all.

[Q] You haven't reviewed an Elvis Costello album since 1991 and haven't A-listed one since 1986. Is there any hope that he will ever release an album up to your standards again? -- Adam S. Fenton, Menifee, California

[A] By "review" you seem to mean a full paragraph as opposed to an Honorable Mention sentence/clause. But Honorable Mentions are reviews by me. They represent at least three to five listens, often more while less is very unusual. Sometimes the writing is dashed off--if something succinct comes to me I thank the prose gods and go with it. Usually, however, I put real time into the first draft and go over it many times. In addition, at the bottom of my Costello page you'll find a full-length review of his Roots show and collab written for MSN in 2013. Have played the new one once. Thought it began strong. Will return at my own pace.

[Q] "Nor can I resist reprinting it here, regrettable singular 'they' notwithstanding," are ya a transphobe now Bob? -- Tom, Philadelphia

[A] No, I'm not a transphobe--see my 1997 review of John Heidenry's What Wild Ecstasy, collected in Book Reports--and am happy to employ the singular "they" when circumstances warrant. In Clover's book it was used as a default, which is not my way. Just as I value the serial comma, I value the distinction between singular and plural. It can be so clarifying.

[Q] I'm currently reading Douglas Wolk's All of the Marvels, his new book about making his way through all 27,000 (!) Marvel comics. As you are namechecked in the book (it's in a footnote on page 15). I was wondering--you've written about and mentioned comics now and then over the years, but I don't remember anything specific about Marvel. Since they were a big part of the pop culture landscape from the '60s on, I was wondering if you'd ever tried any. My guess is no, but just curious. -- Stanley Whyte, Montreal

[A] You guessed correctly--even in the '50s, when I was the right age, I wasn't big on comic books and preferred the actually comic ones. Was very interested in head comix later, and played a small role in Harvey Pekar's success that included nominating him for a Macarthur, and wrote a big piece on R. Crumb's version of the book of Genesis that's in Book Reports. My daughter, on the other hand, seldom misses one of the many Marvel movies and I've seen a few with her. I am definitely an admirer of Douglas Wolk, who's clearly done yeoman-as-genius work here, and am flattered by his footnote. We did a National Arts Journalism Program stint together, and share an agent, Sarah Lazin, who gave me a copy of the book when I saw her for the first time in way too long. I certainly intend to at least begin it, because if anyone is going to make critical sense of that world, which is plainly of tremendous cultural importance, he's the guy.

[Q] I thanked Peter Stampfel for hipping me to Dave Hickey who I didn't know about until Peter posted that he'd died. I read Air Guitar and flipped for so much of it--the writing, the thinking. A couple pieces I even then read aloud to my wife--the Perry Mason, Chet Baker, and title essays. Peter said you turned him on to Hickey so I'm bringing my thanks right to that source. -- David Greenberger, Greenwich, New York

[A] Backatcha, David, who those who don't recognize the name should be aware is responsible for an amazing series of albums in which interviews with people living out their endgames in senior residences are read aloud and set to music--very much worth checking out. Your tribute to Hickey gives me the chance to opine yet again that while nothing tops Air Guitar, Hickey's 2017 collection Perfect Wave, which I reviewed in And It Don't Stop early on, is almost as good--indeed, deserves its own legend.

[Q] What's the last sound you hope to hear? -- Andrew Maslar, Baltimore

[A] My wife and daughter telling me they love me, or maybe a variation on the last sound my father heard, which was me murmuring "Thank you. Thank you." Not music, unless something occurs to me as the time grows near, as I suppose it might. Chuck Berry? Monk? Impossible to predict.