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 16, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

la recherche du temps perdu ('50s edition), worthwhile Canadians, Taylor v. Joni, Sarah Palin v. Jeffrey Lewis, and the electric kool-aid Dock Ellis revelation

[Q] Any chance you'll write a '60s or '50s rock book? Any chance you'll write today's concept of what that time was about? You said (one time long ago) the transition between '50s and '60s was endlessly complex. Sounds like a book or two, to me at least. -- Milan N, Belgrade

[A] Oddly enough, a history of '50s rock and roll--please not '60s rock, a far vaster and less coherent subject--went on my agenda around the time I began teaching at NYU in 2005, because it quickly became clear that my students knew next to nothing about it. I even wrote a Barnes & Noble piece musing about this lacuna, and designed a '50s course that I taught at NYU in 2015. If I didn't have my Substack gig I might even be working on it, though later I came up with another book idea I might also have pursued. But I do have my Substack gig, and it's very nearly a full-time job, and I'm 80, and the love of my life thinks I work too hard. So don't hold your breath.

[Q] What is your opinion of the early albums of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry on Chess? I know you've recommended greatest hits albums by both artists but I'm curious if you think their individual albums hold up themselves. No question that there is a mediocre track or two on each of their albums but the overall consistency and originality of Berry albums like More Chuck Berry and St. Louis to Liverpool and Chuck Berry Is on Top and of Diddley albums like Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger and Have Guitar Will Travel and Bo Diddley Is a Lover amazes me and I wonder if you feel the same. -- Scott, New York City

[A] Since I'm old enough to own both Bo's great Robert Palmer-curated/annotated Chess Box and Bo's The Definitive Collection, which I recommended to Blender readers 15 year ago ago after Chess Box went out of print and which are now both collectors' items, those are what I play. But note too that early Bo is old enough to be available in one of those cheap multi-album gray market European packages that as copyrights expire are now surfacing on a lot of Black music from the '50s, and I bet all that music is pretty good. Nonetheless, I'm happy with what I've got, so I'll leave my Bo advice there and if you prefer to mine Discogs be my guest. As for Chuck, I'm old enough to own his Chess Box too, but generally I go to either the great The Definitive Collection or else something post-Chess: Chuck, the 2021 Live from Blueberry Hill, recently 1979's Rockit too. Since you ask, The Definitive Collection includes everything I find worthwhile from Chuck Berry Is on Top. St. Louis to Liverpool is several shades better. But given how much other great music is out in the world, in my opinion life is too short, and not just if you're 80, to devote too much time to these fine distinctions. a

[Q] American/European media dominates. The number one radio station in Central Ontario plays mostly American, but you can always count on at least one song by "The Hip" or the song "Go For a Soda" to help reach the Cancon quota. Other than that, mostly AC/DC. The only other popular stations are country. You won't happen upon any Sloan or Teenage Head by turning a Canadian radio dial. You stumble upon that stuff either by reading, or through your Dad. Government funded art programs help local acts release a cassette or slightly bigger ones have any career at all, but everything worthwhile gets buried by the Hip. Newer music is only played on the radio through particular campuses or occasionally on CBC. Is this a case of the old deliberately ignoring the young? Ps. Here's a list of worthwhile Canadians that nobody's dad stands up for: Tops, Baby Labour, Fet.Nat, Lido Pimienta, Luge, Ian James Bain, Keita Juma, Black Dresses, and New Fries. -- Justin Grignon, Petersborough, Ontario

[A] If you say so. Having just isolated a Canadian act I like a lot that you did not mention, Mama's Broke, as well as discovered that Buck 65 had returned, I'll wait and see if anyone on that inconveniently long list makes an impression.

[Q] Taylor Swift > Joni Mitchell. Thoughts? -- Nicholas Wanhella, Vancouver

[A] As these silly mind games go, this strikes me as a good one, which is why I've agreed to play. In terms of schooled skill and raw talent, your > isn't a crazy notion at all, at least by me, because I happen to be both a longtime admirer of Swift, who in 2008 started getting nothing but A's save one B plus, and a Joni skeptic, with little if any use for the vast preponderance of albums that followed her extraordinary 1970-74 run of Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, For the Roses, and Court and Spark: The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, and the misbegotten Mingus seemed half-assed at best and much of what followed was worse than that. Many people I like and mightily respect have loved that post-Court and Spark music, especially the first three--Eric Lott and the late great Karin Berg come to mind. But for me the records kept getting worse except for the superb 2000 covers album Both Sides Now, few worse than 2007's Shine, which I panned brutally for Rolling Stone. Swift's popcraft is so consistent that she's never sunk nearly that low. And yet, and yet, as I hear it Swift has also never recorded anything remotely in the same league as that 1970-74 run, where not only are the songs and singing nonpareil (and in different, evolving ways at that) but the musical conception is nonpareil as well--the ethereal folkie of Mitchell's debut Joni Mitchell and follow-up Clouds braves the harmonic complexities of the jazz that as I hear it will then contribute to her artistic undoing in the late '70s. This is music that has few equals as music anywhere--not just in Swift's sizable catalogue but in the entire rock canon. Blue and For the Roses are albums I find myself wanting to hear again. Fine though they are, Red and Evermore aren't.

[Q] Do you still think Sarah Palin is as smart as Jeffrey Lewis? -- Ronan Connelly, Salt Lake City

[A] The source of this calumny is my pan of the 2008 covers album Lewis did on U.K. punk anarchists the Crass, a more-rad-than-thou band I heartily disliked due to their barely concealed contempt for the working stiffs and ordinary yobs they supposedly wanted to remake the economy for without ever beginning to specify how this noble goal might be achieved. The relevant passage read as follows: "Historically, people in this economy [meaning the one that failed the working class] have taken what they can get and had some fun in their spare time. They like Sarah Palin because they know she's as smart as Jeffrey Lewis and suspect they're not all that far behind themselves." Not long thereafter, Lewis formed a working alliance with Peter Stampfel that continues to this day, and as a friend of Stampfel I got to know him, where he proved much smarter than his misbegotten Crass project as did many of his solo albums, most memorably 2015's Manhattan. A fine artist and an ace guy, I've come to think. But as to whether Palin is as smart as he is, I wouldn't rule that out. For sure she's shrewder than she looks or she wouldn't have survived this long, though she did get swamped on election night, splitting the vote with another Republican and thus it seems enabling Democrat and native Alaskan Mary Peltola to continue to represent her largely Republican state in the House.

[Q] It is with respect and admiration that I share my revelation with you. Everyone from our planet knows about the Dock Ellis on acid no-hitter. There are songs, books and probably t-shirts and buttons. But did you, or anyone, till me, notice that in the box score that day was the line: Ellis, D. pitcher ( LSD !!!!)

-- Bernie Kellman, San Francisco

[A] Thank you!!!