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.

August 23, 2023

[Q] Hi there! Big fan, Mr. Xgau. A little while ago (a long while ago, actually) somebody asked for some of your favorite happy or upbeat albums. I'd like to ask the inverse--what are some of your favorite sad, slow albums? I think this might be interesting given your dislike of the sad, slow, or subtle. Do you have any use for depressive or difficult music in your life? Some I've found useful would be: Joni Mitchell's Blue, Sly Stone's Riot, Mount Eerie's indelible A Crow Looked at Me, Kendrick Lamar's Damn., Plastic Ono Band, Phoebe Bridgers's Punisher, Billie Eilish's first album. I'd like to add that I'm not a particularly depressive person, and I think sad music is tough to get right without being self-pitying or escapist. And one last pick: Natalie Bergman's grief-fueled Mercy, a definite recommend that you haven't reviewed to my knowledge. -- Tyler, Cape Town, South Africa

[A] A very strange question I'm only answering in case any other reader is unaware that the albums my big fan Tyler asks about are all but one reviewed in full and positively at the very searchable, an excellent place to find out what I think about lots of stuff though keep reading And It Don't Stop please. Most are full A's, Lamar an A minus, Sly an A plus. A Crow Looked at Me was my number three of 2017 and Billie Eilish's debut was number one of 2019. I don't like the Bridgers much. I intend to prefer the angry to the sad, also the sardonic. I'll give the Bergman a shot and recommend you do the same for Laurie Anderson's A plus Heart of a Dog. (P.S. Started the Bergman. Couldn't get through it. Too wispy and crystalline.)

[Q] Robbie Robertson just passed and I've always considered him one of rock's greatest guitarists and an underappreciated songwriter to boot. From what I can tell from your reviews of the Band's output, their self-titled second album is the only one you unequivocally recommend. Have your opinions of the Band's albums changed since you reviewed them or do you still consider Music for Big Pink, Moondog Matinee and Northern Lights only B records? They seem more of a concept album band than not but perhaps there's a best-of in their discography that you love? -- Chris Reide, Greenbush, New York

[A] It turns out that during our just-friends-except-actually-I-love-you phase I gave Carola an extra copy I had of Stage Fright, and when Robertson died that was the album she asked me give a spin. Hadn't played the Band in years so I said sure but only thought it sounded good-not-great. For me that's par. I think it's more about the singer(s) and maybe the groove than the songwriter(s), but except for The Band they've never made an album I really, as we used to say, dig--although four others were B plusses, which is no kind of pan. Also, I've always thought Robertson was more a self-important roots-pop middlebrow than the font of wisdom he was widely taken to be, including by himself. If I have time before I file this I'll try to replay Moondog Matinee--find that's the one I'm most curious about.

[Q] Howdy! I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the musical value and cultural importance (or lack thereof) of Sun Ra. Your two published reviews, which include a nod to popular favorite Lanquidity and a warm eye roll at the "seminal DIY, bullshit included" of the singles give me a good sense of where you land, as does my understanding of your general critical approach (a disinclination to valorize eccentricity, fecundity, illusory mysticism, and the "integrity" of the marginal for their own sakes, a rather dignified refusal to slog through discographies even diehards consider forbidding and wildly uneven). I also recall you spoke well of John Szwed's biography, although that doesn't indicate one way or the other how you feel about Sun Ra's music. Bemused admiration of the person but little personal use for most of the music? -- Isaac Olson, Tacoma

[A] Jazz was my main musical interest during my 1958-1962 college years, where my bebop-to-Coltrane/Coleman preferences were pretty avant-garde although not especially "free" except for Ornette. Between Beatlemania etc. and my critical and romantic partner Ellen Willis, who to put it kindly disliked jazz, I didn't hear much from 1966 to 1969, although by 1969 Sun Ra in particular was luring me back--see this rather crude report from the way-east East Village Slug's, which Willis presumably skipped. By 1970 the JCOA events were combining Sun Ra's style of "free" with more countercultural, hippie-era events on St. Marks Place where I recall Sun Ra's band participating or even starring. But ultimately I am a rock critic, which means songs with good lyrics, catchy tunes, and a propulsive beat are my meat. Sorting through the inspired and indeed visionary mess of Sun Ra's catalog would require more time, expertise, and indeed inclination than I have. That said, I clearly should play Lanquidity for Carola sometime. I bet I'd learn something.

[Q] As you get on in years do you find yourself rethinking eternity? Do any gospel recordings by Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash find their way on your playlist? -- Nathaniel E. Lathy, Columbus, Ohio

[A] Raised born-again Christian and officially "saved" for a spell in my early teens, I've called myself an atheist since I was 17, a development I go into some detail about in Going Into the City. Needless to say, however, I could be wrong--maybe there is a God of some sort. It's also conceivable I'll be prey to existential terror as death approaches. That said, I find it very hard to believe Christian hymns, especially by Elvis Presley, will provide succor. Maybe Willie Nelson's Last Man Standing or A Beautiful Time--my mother-in-law listened to Stardust on repeat in her final weeks. Carola has long since nominated Dusty Springfield's "A Brand New Me" as a way of rethinking eternity.

July 19, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

Is there a definitive Hag compilation? What about the Rocketman? Also: jazz, comics, '70s decadence (toe fetish not included), and a few words in defense of democracy.

[Q] You have never given Merle Haggard a full A. And given the size of his catalog and the plethora of compilations by multiple labels, I've never dived into his catalog. So what do you play when you're in the mood for a little Hag? Is there a compilation you find yourself returning to? Or at least a definitive one that includes his classics? -- Ronan Connelly, Quintana Roo, Mexico

[A] Before I forget, let me recommend David Cantwell's excellent Haggard biography The Running Kind, which will probably speak to your needs better than I can. Because the fact is that I never quite grokked Haggard even though I could recognize his musical skill set, historical importance, and progressive affinities. My disconnect partly but by no means entirely reflects the time I watched him vituperatively badmouth his female stagemate at the Felt Forum circa 2006 or so, which shocked both Carola and myself so much we never forgot it. But it also reflects my personal and idiosyncratic response to his singing as opposed to songwriting, which is that there are lots of country singers I'd rather hear: Jones, Williams, Parton, Frizzell, Lynn for starters. That said, of the three rather different Haggard Capitol best-ofs on my shelves, Hag: The Best of, Vintage Collection, and The Capitol Collectors Series, I figured I'd go for the first-named, which sounded quite OK at breakfast this morning but not as masterful vocally as Lefty's Look What Thoughts Will Do, which followed. Note too that my immediate response to your query was to think of Working in Tennessee, cut when Haggard was in his seventies and sounded it. Might be worth your time.

[Q] Have you ever found a definitive Elton John compilation? -- Michaelangelo Matos, St Paul

[A] Now that you mention it, nope. Weird for such a hit machine, isn't it? Out of curiosity I just replayed 1975's Rock of the Westies, which sounded all too here or there, although I liked it a lot when it first surfaced (which is how it came to pass that I wrote the Elton piece in the first Rolling Stone Illustrated History). Liked the Rocketman flick, though.

[Q] Hi Bob, I know your jazz coverage is sporadic and subjective but I'm surprised you never reviewed any albums by sax great Steve Lacy--specifically because both you and Lacy are major Thelonious Monk fans. It's the rare Lacy album that doesn't include a couple of Monk compositions, every one of which Lacy does something interesting with. There must be at least one or two Steve Lacy albums that make the A grade, right? -- Alan, Chatsworth, California

[A] I review more jazz than most rock critics, but these days that's mostly to come to closer terms with my own musical history--looking back, my collegiate jazz fandom in an era when Dartmouth's WDCR played pop only on Saturday nights, many of which I spent road-tripping to NYC, distinguish me mightily from the slightly younger cadre of folk-soaked rockcrits who graduated college circa 1966 rather than 1962 like me. So I feel no obligation to play much less review the contemporary jazz albums that randomly come my way, which is not to say I never do. I'm inclined to respect rather than love Lacy and presumably have caught him gigging once or twice, but can report no relevant musical details on his albums except that I at least A-shelved Lacy and Mal Waldron's 1991 Hot House--that is, thought enough of it to keep to keep it in reach among my thousands of CDs. I'll try to play it at dinner tonight and will let you know how that turns out. (Report: I wasn't much impressed. Carola enjoyed it without much telltale kvelling.)

[Q] I know you're not a comics fan, but have you ever read the brothers Hernandez's work? I ask because I just finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which you've recommended in the past and I thought it was strongly influenced by their work. Mostly Gilbert's Palomar stories, but there was a lot of Jamie's Maggie and Hopey stories in it as well. It was great, by the way, so thanks. -- Chuck, Upstate New York

[A] There was a late-'70s, pre-Nina moment when--sparked by Harvey Pekar, who we knew about via our Cleveland pal Ray Dobbins and Carola was one of the first to give national coverage--when both of us got interested in comics with the Hernandezes high on our list. I withdrew, I think, mostly because the oeuvre was so vast it was hard to get your mind around. But for sure I'd rate them artists at least as major as some contemporary novelists I'll decline to name.

[Q] What is with your disdain for Lou Reed? Well, there's the obvious "toefucker" comment, but your review of the album in which Lou insults you by name is less critical than some of his studio albums. The album I am referring to is Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners, which you gave a C+. You also gave Lou's most incredible fuck you album of guitar feedback Metal Machine Music a C+. However, you gave Berlin, an album on which Reed at the very least tried, a C. I'm not a big Berlin apologist myself, but I think it is a rather uncontroversial opinion that it's a better record than Metal Machine Music. Moving on, you gave Transformer, Lou's glam rock magnum opus, a C, and hypothesized Lou had fallen from his VU-era greatness. I don't feel I need to defend Transformer, the album is good enough and can speak for itself. Mr. Christgau, I do not know why I write you other than to ask if you still defend these beliefs? Or have you softened on Lou's earlier records? -- Zephyr F., New York City

[A] Having awarded Reed, Velvets included, with 17 A albums, "disdain" seems like quite a stretch to me. What's up with me as regards the "decadent" '70s Reed that Berlin and Transformer epitomized is that I think most rock "decadence" is asshole BS aesthetically--a cheap pass at a putatively arty "seriousness" that as a wholesome ex-Christian boy I believe romanticizes not to mention valorizes dysfunction. See the notorious Lester Bangs convos of that period, which bear out these prejudices--Reed was quite the jerk in those days. Although I liked some of his slighter '70s albums, and admired Metal Machine Music's chutzpah without pretending I was itching for a replay, I didn't warm to him again until his domestic Blue Mask/Legendary Hearts/New Sensations trilogy of the early '80s, although I caught a live performance of Berlin circa 2007 that I thought was OK. See "Lou Reed, Average Guy" in my Grown Up All Wrong collection for more, of which there's plenty. And I'm sorry I didn't squeeze the obit I wrote the day he died in front of the Bowie obit in Is It Still Good to Ya?

[Q] C'mon, you can't expect your June answer to a question about a mentor to pass without notice. No need to argue about the worth of Carl Bernstein but your assertion that your contribution to the universe can't match the Nixon doomslayer is--what's that word you sometimes use?--bushwa. Here's another Xgau phrase those of us out here in the cheap seats know too well--but, OK, sure I am a fan. So how about your ownership (whatever the percentage) of the establishment of rock criticism? The recognition/celebration/validation of hip-hop as a musical force? Same for African rock/pop? Same for others I am sure I am forgetting. How about letter grades saving us from decades of insufferable, mealy-mouthed, everything-is-just-fine reviews? How about the extended career of Wussy? Nixon ended up in hell anyway. -- Werner Trieschmann, Arkansas

[A] Werner my old colleague, acquaintance, and Pazz & Jop voter, bless you. I'm proud indeed that you feel so strongly about these matters, and proud as well to have decided long ago that journalism was as likely a venue as fiction in which I might write entertaining, distinguished, mayhap even literary prose, especially since I was so bad at making shit up. I'm also proud to have transferred such values to the supposedly crude musical genre I made my journalistic lifework. But underlying both these points of pride is my belief in something deeper: democracy. And has become all too clear in the Trump years, democracy is gravely endangered. Can it be saved by journalism of the Carl Bernstein ilk alone? Of course not. But is Bernstein's kind of fact-finding risk, luck, and labor essential to its salvation? You know it. All I can do over in my neck of the woods is bang that gong a little.

June 21, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

Artistic vitality and momentousness considered, the blind pull, metallic K.O. without arrogance, journalistic angels, and some thoughts about the Beatles.

[Q] For your musicians doing great work in their eighties [Xgau Sez, May 2023] I would surely add Loretta Lynn. Full Circle and Still Woman Enough are great albums, and her voice hadn't crumbled a bit -- Kenneth C. Stillman, Columbus, Ohio

[A] Amen to that. You always forget people when you assemble life lists off the top of your head--like for instance Taj Mahal, prominently featured in the June CG--and while I wouldn't say Lynn's voice shows no signs of wear in the two fine albums she made in her eighties it comes close enough. Anyway, the illusion of youth isn't the point. Artistic vitality is the ticket, and she was a wonder.

[Q] Any thoughts on Tina Turner since her passing? I appreciated your pieces on Aretha Franklin, Prince, and David Bowie after they had passed. Though I know you were no big fan of Turner, I do think she holds importance as a black woman who undoubtably is categorical rock as opposed to r&b, blues, soul, etc. And of course the success she achieved after she entered her forties in an industry which favors youth. -- James Kean, Liverpool

[A] Aware that I'd let her passing pass, I've wondered about this myself. But without question Franklin-Prince-Bowie were all deeper and more aesthetically momentous. Were/are you a big Tina fan? Of what, exactly? First successful Black female rock artist, check. As such, however, very showbiz. Also as such, better than the Foo Fighters but not Nirvana or arguably Meshell Ndegeocello either. Absolutely I'm glad she escaped Ike, and glad too that she got richer without him. He was a beast. But he was also a genius going back to Jackie Brenston's 1951 rock and roll precursor "Rocket 88," and I'm not convinced she remained as complex and singular an artist without him. When Etta James died, my longtime admiration flowered into something richer and more complex. So far that's not happening with Tina.

[Q] Do you ever feel like listening to Ani DiFranco or Modest Mouse? Near great artists that never made an undeniable album, but is there any album of theirs that you want to pull out once in a while? -- Nicolas Auclair, Montérégie, Québec

[A] There are fine albums I'll never hear again if I live to 100. If you've admired and enjoyed (and own) as many albums as me, that's just the way listening is. Of your two examples, DiFranco is much the less consistent--you could look it up. But she's also the one I'd be more likely to pull out, because her evolving feminism remains complex and provocative (or so I believe without doublechecking). This is why I often resort to what I call the blind pull from my shelves. Most recent winner: Sarge. Sounded good-not-great.

[Q] I found a logic thread in the fact that you gave a positive review to a number of underrated records: all Big Black, Motörhead's Orgasmatron, Clash's Cut the Crap, Dirty Work by Stones, and Tim by ones who hate answering machines, which in my opinion are the pinnacle of hard rock in the '80s (I personally define them as metal in a way you say). Desperate vocalising and convincing guitars and lots of treble here and there (but top songwriting there). I think of it as a metal music purist. What do you think? -- Chertnihv, Ukraine

[A] As someone who dislikes the inflated grandiosity and pseudoclassical pretensions of metal, I agree that all these albums generate the kind of emotional power metal aspires to without, Steve Albini's Big Black excepted, giving off a telltale whiff of arrogance. As a grouping it makes sense, and it's gratifying to infer that it helps get you through your endangered days. Thanks for writing.

[Q] I just finished reading Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom by Carl Bernstein. It tells the story of his entry at age 16 into the newspaper business. Two things struck me. One, he was destined for success from day one. Two, several people he encountered early on magnified and nurtured his abilities, and he speaks lovingly of their role in making him who he is today. Can you identify one or more individuals who played that part in your inevitable rise to the top. -- Andrew, Maslar, Baltimore

[A] First of all, this is an apples-and-oranges comparison. Carl Bernstein saved the republic. All I did was save Tin Pan Alley for the Ramones and James Brown, which was far more "inevitable" in any case than I was. But if I had an angel it was editor-turned-publisher Clay Felker, who when I was already 23 gave me a spec assignment that turned into "Beth Ann and Macrbioticism," the best piece of narrative journalism I'd ever write and my ticket to a living that flowered into a short-lived "Secular Music" column at Esquire and took decisive shape when Felker bought The Village Voice in 1974 and made me the kind of music editor he had no idea was coming. For more, check out the obit I wrote for the National Arts Journalism program's ARTicles in 2008.

[Q] I'm curious to hear what you think about the recent women-led revisionist critique of the Beatles and their work (see this Guardian article ). Podcasts like Diana Erickson's One Sweet Dream and Erin Weber's excellent book The Beatles and the Historians have challenged a lot of the calcified Boomer narrative surrounding them (i.e. the myth of Saint John, Philip Norman's shoddy scholarship, etc.) It's interesting to note (a little funny I must admit) that you, as a feminist, are not held in high regard amongst this new crop of feminist critics given your "Shoulda been Paul" comments after John's murder as well as your general dismissiveness of Paul (and George). Have you ever apologized for that comment, btw? -- Anthony Volpe, Roslindale, MA

[A] Let me straighten out a few of numerous misconceptions. As I've said many times, I don't have time for podcasts because I use my ears for music, pretty much nonstop unless I'm watching TV with my wife. Who, how about that, was the person who uttered the supposedly Paul-targeting question I included in the Lennon obit I crushed out on a tight deadline in the seven-eight hours after he was murdered. To quote: "Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon? Why isn't it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?" Which after all these years I'm still apparently obliged to point out was not to equate McCartney with Nixon much less wish McCartney dead but to throw up her hands at the dire psychology of assassination, which I then attempted to explicate. As for women leading some U.K.-based, academia-mottled, feminist revision of Beatles history, maybe I'll pay attention when it comes from someone smarter than those quoted in the ramshackle piece of arts-page filler you linked to. More Beatles scholarship is always welcome--for sure they weren't perfect human beings. But it's highly unlikely any of it will be as rich as Rob Sheffield's superb 2017 Dreaming the Beatles, which explicates in fond, awestruck detail how crucial and perceptive the teenaged girls who made the Beatles famous were. In this connection I also recommend Robert Zemeckis's 1978 flick I Wanna Hold Your Hand, a Beatlesless Beatles movie that focuses on their female fans. And I'll note that one of the women the Guardian piece features grew up in Cleveland, where early on the Plain-Dealer hired a female rock critic who preceded Paul Williams, Richard Goldstein, Jann Wenner, me, and everybody else. Her name was Jane Scott, she hung in there till 2002 when she turned 83, and what really hooked her was the first time she covered the Beatles. A long time ago she wrote about them a lot.

May 24, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

The King of the Gentle Blues Singers, uncountable grooves and subgrooves, brevity, a fun job (as jobs go), octogenarians who keep on truckin', and Carola's favorite science-fiction novels.

[Q] You've reviewed several great country blues compilations and many key artists in the genre such as Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Charlie Patton. Just wondering if you plan to review these other major country blues performers who also deserve recognition: Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, and the underrated Reverend Gary Davis? -- Henry Chung, New York City

[A] The one name you left out of your reasonable query and the bluesman I play most often is the gentle Mississippi John Hurt, who has four reviews on my site including an A plus that hasn't proven the one I grab, though now maybe I will (sounded good, natch). The ones I've liked best are the early Avalon Blues and the very late Last Sessions, now part of a Vanguard threefer. Checked out Blind Willie McTell some after Dylan wrote his song of that title and found him less than compelling. I like Gary Davis but have never felt the need to parse his catalogue, which is rather large in part because he settled in Queens and was an NYC folkie favorite. I've never written about Robert Johnson because he's a titan with such a complex story that doing it right would require weeks of listening and comparing as well as reading and rereading. But I play him fairly often--let the record show that my housemate never says no to a blues record. In this connection I recommend Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta, which makes a point of Johnson's debts to the pop blues of the mid '30s. Also recommend Brother Robert by Annye C. Anderson, a retired schoolteacher who was 92 when the book came out in 2020. She was really a stepsister, but she did spend serious time with him as a girl in Memphis.

[Q] Your explorations into African music since the 1980s have opened up this world to many of your readers. I wonder if you've ever dipped into the genre of Pacific pop? Much of it was influenced by American dance-band leader Eddie Lund, who arrived in Tahiti in the 1930s, recorded many groups and wrote or arranged countless tunes; he never left. In Tonga, musicians took up the lap steel guitar which became synonymous with the region (along with eight-string ukuleles). The sound was a big part of New Zealand pop when it started being recorded from the late '40s. -- Chris Bourke, Wellington, New Zealand

[A] I've obviously written about many variants of "world" music over the years, but just as obviously African musics have long predominated, and why that should be is obvious too--as an American music fan who grew up on rock and roll with a minor in jazz, I have a special feeling for music mostly developed by the African-Americans who far more than any other ethnic group have turned American pop into an international music. And then I can go further--the defining secret of African-American music although hardly its only strength or attractive usage is rhythmic, and even though there's enormous variety among the countless pure and also hybrid Afropop substyles, almost all ride their own uncountable grooves and subgrooves. Why it is I can feel and respond to so many of these grooves I don't know; as I've said many times, I'm not much of a dancer. But apparently I do. And be it Brazil or China or the Balkans or, well, the Pacific, no other culture is likely to provide that kind of aesthetic payback even though I often enjoy those musics too. So if I find an easy way to to hear Eddie Lund I'll give him a shot. But it seems doubtful he'll change my musical life in any material way.

[Q] It seems like everyone who's ever written for you says you're a magnificent editor. Any trade secrets you'd like to share with those of us whose skill level has topped out at "employable"? I'm sure one of them is to read omnivorously. -- Tom, Maryland

[A] I expect there are a lot of omnivorous readers who are nothing special as editors, but let me see what I can patch together. To start I'd say that you have to respect and if possible empathize with the writer's intentions except when they're patently wrong-headed or ethically objectionable--I once assigned a Yellow Magic Orchestra review to a writer who thought it would be funny to transpose all the L's and R's and stormed off for good when I told him rather sharply that it wasn't, but subtler and often unintentional racial, gender, and other stereotyping is a commoner problem. You should reread as carefully with the writer once you've marked up a piece as you did the first time alone--which means, that's right, that if you can't be in the same room as the writer you can at least edit on the phone rather than by email. Be on the lookout not just for clichés but for stronger or more interesting language, and if you see a joke by all means suggest it. If an idea cries out for development talk that possibility through. Double-check any fact that you're not sure is accurate. Brevity is always a virtue, and when you need to cut for space take a careful look at the lead, which will often include some throat-clearing. On the other hand, if you need to cut for space don't be afraid to cut a word here and shorten a clause there--that stuff adds up. When you need an ending reread and try to find a phrase or thought that could stand some reiteration--that echo effect can do wonders. And oh yeah, reread Strunk & White. It's not scripture. It's not even always right. But it will always sharpen your thinking a little.

[Q] How do you handle those days where you have a certain amount of albums to review but are preoccupied with other matters and thought, "I'm just not in 'Dean of American Rock Critics' mode right now"? Are you able to set personal matters aside while you're reviewing albums? -- Chris, Belford, New Jersey

[A] You romanticize what my reviewing work is like. Painful life crises or competing entertainments aside, I play music every minute I'm home or out alone with my headphones. But note that playing it means I'm hearing it not that I'm listening to it. In fact, for music I'm hearing to catch my ear so that I concentrate on it and listen carefully is fundamental to how I make judgments. That music inspires attention is my first clue that it may be worth writing about, because usually that means I'm enjoying it. Then I try to concentrate and find out how that grabs me. Then I find out how it holds up to repetition. And somewhere in there I start to concentrate on and isolate and maybe analyze my degree of interest or pleasure, gradually getting a grip on its skill or substance or beauty or energy or lyrical acuity or any combination of the above. And sometime in that phase comes the work phase you imagine where I say to myself you're the dean now nail this one. Except that whether or not I'm the dean is usually irrelevant. I'm just a critic, doing what critics do. Which is a fun job as jobs go.

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