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 18, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

The limits of lists, the power of craft and wisdom over time, the vocal brilliance of Charley Pride, the educational playfulness of Sophie, '2666' remains on the shelf, & middle ground for socialism.

[Q] Rolling Stone's top 500 albums underwent quite a shakeup from both previous versions in their update last year. The concept of "ranking" albums, especially across artist, decade, and genre, is too complex for me to seriously consider. I can argue why Aftermath is better than Let It Bleed but don't ask me to compare either of them to In a Silent Way. Still, as far as choices go, Rolling Stone's choice of What's Going On is an odd one. Even in its own offbeat, stoned universe, it is far from perfect (an A for me). Do you think these lists have any utility? Is there a way to create a list that you would prefer? -- Jacob H, Minneapolis

[A] It's nice to have a new reader, as I assume you are because I've complained about the overrated What's Going On many times, although note that the mag didn't "choose" it as number one, it ran a poll in which it was voted number one. Moreover, I wrote a piece about the Stone list for And It Don't Stop that ran in September 2020, and filed another about Stone's much later singles list. As for the greatest singers thing the mag recently put on the newsstands, which several readers have inquired about, the truth is that I've yet to read it bottom to top but would probably lead off any such list of my own, which at the moment I have no interest in concocting, with Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, both high on the Stone list but not high enough.

[Q] Bill James has done studies that track the average performance of baseball players by age. I haven't seen studies like that of musicians and probably never will because we don't have statistics for them like we do for ballplayers. (We do have your grades, though!) Without getting too rigorous, it still seems to me that the average peak age for rock musicians is probably about what it is for athletes--around 27ish. I wonder if you agree, and if you'd expect those abilities to rise and fall together if you take a long view of them. I wonder who would be your picks for outlier rock musicians who did their best musical work after 30. Your marks suggest that you might regard Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan as examples. -- HB, NYC

[A] This seems wrong to me. For sure many bands and solo artists come off the blocks young and never quite equal that pitch of intensity again--many would say Dylan though I wouldn't, Ramones, Stooges, Beatles too although Lennon's Plastic Ono Band came when he was 29 and I'm a big fan of Double Fantasy 10 years later. But 27 is way young for an "average peak age" even though Joplin and Hendrix died at 27 and Kurt Cobain later joined what his mother called "that stupid club" (and Otis Redding went down in a plane crash at 26 and Buddy Holly at just 22, which renders neither any kind of burnout). A minute or two of brainstorming reminded me of Exile on Main Street and Some Girls, post-30 Stones masterpieces both. For my money Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo were better past 30 than they were before. Neil Young did his best work in his thirties and then kept going, and note too that even Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" broke when he was just shy of 29 and a bunch of his greatest songs were written in prison when he was pushing 40. General conclusion: especially for individuals but often for whole bands, the pop music labeled "rock" generally turns into a career, and while the excitement may well wane, craft and wisdom often compensate.

[Q] Did Robert Christgau know Charley Pride? -- Robert Mazzella

[A] If by "know" you mean personally please be advised that this is a silly question. I meet very few musicians, and though usually I like them when I do, the only one I know well is Peter Stampfel, a friendship that began well after his professional peak such as it was. True, in recent years I've developed warm acquaintanceships with a few artists whose careers I helped boost early, notably Adam Weiner of Low Cut Connie and the Wussy karass. But even so that's just not how my life works. That said, Pride was a worth mourning when he died two years ago, and musically I stand by the best-of review you'll find just below, although I'd amend it to say that racially Nashville has opened up a little in the two decades since I wrote it.

Charley Pride: RCA Country Legends [Buddha, 2000]
Voicewise, as brilliant as Vernon Dalhart, Ray Price, George Jones. Contentwise, as wan as Red Foley, Ronnie Milsap, Eddie Rabbitt. Only for Pride, wan was perverse. A deeply ambitious sharecropper's son who moved up to Montana to pursue his first love, baseball, and settled for a job smelting zinc, Pride didn't stand out because he could dip from tenor to bass in well-enunciated middle-American smeared with drawl and flanged with vibrato. He stood out because he wasn't white. Although it wasn't easy becoming the only black country star ever, once he got over the hump he was the perfect token for Southern traditionalists eager to find safe common ground with the civil rights movement. Stylistically honky-tonk when Nashville was trying to be modern, he was never thematically honky-tonk--no drinking songs, God knows no catting songs. Yet his skin color was inescapable. From this Mississippi emigre the pro forma can't-go-home-again of "Wonder Could I Live There Anymore" was an indictment, "voice of Uncle Ben" and all. And how to read the cornball complacency of "I'm Just Me": "I was just born to be/Exactly what you see/Nothing more or less/I'm not the worst or the best/I just try to be/Exactly what you see"? Early on some well-wisher suggested he bill himself George Washington Carver III. But that would have been taking on airs, he'd stick with his own name thankee, and look what it was. Belated Country Music Hall of Famer Pride no longer tours regularly. He doesn't have to. He owns a bank. A−

[Q] Hello, just wondered if you've thought about Sophie's all-too-small output in her brief time on earth since her passing. Personally, it was comforting to hear that her saddest song was permission to just cry, for whatever reason life provides. Ultimately, I saw her vision as one of an uplifting spirit that affirms both dancefloor euphoria and transhumanist folly. If a lot of queer art is just a bugle from the aftermath of a war, however well played, then Sophie could be the one that sounds most triumphant. Make of that last proclamation what you will, guess this is ultimately just another one of those "What do you make of this artist?" requests. With all due respect to your health and time, all my best to you and all you hold dear, and thank you for everything. -- Jen Friendship, Brisbane, Australia

[A] I liked both of Sophie's albums quite a lot, their playfulness especially, and was quite saddened to read of her accidental death two years ago. That said, I can't claim to have put them on since--her cultural frame of reference isn't mine, which makes her playfulness educational and even enlightening but less personally compelling than it might be. That said, I listened to both twice with pleasure upon receipt of this question, although I continued to find the clotted "Pretending" a waste of time.

[Q] I hope you read 2666. You deserve the pleasure. I wish you dug Tull but that's a whole other issue. Thanks for your work. Very appreciated by me. -- Bernie Kellman, San Francisco

[A] I read 40-50 books a year, but that requires discipline, and throw an 1100-pager into the mix and it becomes pretty much impossible. Longest of 2022 was my continued-from-2021 third read of the 800-plus-page The Brothers Karamazov, the first two when I was in my teens so that like Crime and Punishment it played an enormous role in my spiritual development that I thought it would be enlightening to revisit, which it was. I also got through David Graebner's 500-plus and rather less fast-moving Debt: The First 5,000 Years. In 2009 I read Bolano's 648-page The Savage Detectives and came away impressed and enlightened, particularly as regards Mexico. But 2666 I left to my fiction-oriented novelist wife Carola, who's imbibed a lot more Bolano than I have and recalls that after the long and harrowing rape section toward the end, which she admired and admires tremendously, she was too spiritually exhausted to continue and never went back. So the pleasure you suggest if that's the right word will probably remain beyond my ken. Although not as far beyond my ken as Jethro Tull.

[Q] Capitalism or socialism? -- Anonymous, United States

[A] If those are my only choices, socialism of course. But as you seem suspiciously unaware in your anonymous way, perhaps because you think capitalism is the only right answer and want to provoke me, they're not. I refer you to "Dark Night of the Quants," a 2011 Barnes & Noble Review column conveniently collected in my 2018 Duke University Press Book Reports, where I report on 10 books about the 2008 financial crisis, one of them summed up thusly: "Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism. South Korean-born British economist loves Swedish capitalism and hates the free-market kind. Like most liberal economists, not much use on political implementation of his sane proposals. A−" Which is to respond, there is a middle ground, and Chang explains it very well.