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music friday: debts to critics

Been thinking about rock critics, Robert Christgau in particular, for an upcoming project, and it seemed like a good time to post something here about those thoughts.

I'll get to Xgau in a bit, but I should start with a few others. The most influential rock critic to me was Greil Marcus. I've read him pretty much since he started writing. When I was a factory worker, his Mystery Train intrigued me enough that when I finally got to Cal as an undergrad, I wrote an American Studies major because that's what he'd done when he had been at Cal. Later, I had the pleasure of a period when he and I were both teaching in related departments, with offices around the corner from each other, giving me a chance to pick his brain.

He is also part of a line that led, if I can be presumptuous, to me, drawing attention to the ways we are influenced by those who came before. Pauline Kael is my biggest influence, and she was an influence on Marcus, as well. Knowing some of the professors at Cal that he had admired, I found myself taking courses from them and, when possible, having them on various committees I needed in grad school.

I once wrote, soon after the deaths of Kael and one of those Berkeley professors, the wonderful Michael Rogin:

Cultural critics like Pauline Kael and Michael Rogin are rare, but their influence is long lasting. We miss them when they are gone, but one can state with assurance (and without resorting to New Age mysticism) that in important ways, they aren't really gone at all. Their work lives on, and by "their work," I don't mean only the words they published. I mean that one day, a young scholar named Greil Marcus took a course from a professor named Rogin, he read a book by a critic named Pauline Kael, and the next thing you know, he was writing books of his own. I mean that one day, a young factory worker named Steven Rubio read one of those books Greil Marcus wrote, and with sudden (and unusual) clarity, knew the direction his life would necessarily take, and down the road, he was writing and teaching himself. I can think of no greater tribute to our late mentors, Kael and Rogin, than that I might just once provide inspiration for the next generation.

Robert Christgau was not that person for me. He was New York, Marcus was Berkeley. But I've been reading him almost as long as I've read Marcus. And the line of influences is complex, like in the case of Ann Powers, who I met when we were in grad school together. I admire her work tremendously. Over the course of her wide-ranging career, she found herself working with Christgau, and they were a great match. These connections often work their way into our souls indirectly, so when Ann wrote a truly beautiful essay, "As I Get Old", for an anthology of essays in honor of Christgau, she never mentioned The Dean, yet you could feel his presence all the same.

Before I finally return to Christgau, a sidebar re: Lester Bangs. It's funny, I loved his writing, but I never thought of him as an influence on myself, nor did I ever try to emulate his writing (a problem I have with many other writers). But when he died, it broke my heart all the same, and when I want to re-read some great writing on music, his pieces on Astral Weeks, and the death of Elvis, are never far from my mind. Meanwhile, those influences still turn up in interesting places. Last Sunday, long-time film critic Mick LaSalle responded to a question about any former film critics who had influenced by writing, "I think one critic did influence me, not in terms of style, but in terms of showing me how much freedom you can allow yourself, how personal you can be, how you can more or less write like you're just talking to people. That’s Lester Bangs."

When I think of Robert Christgau, I don't usually think of the alleged purpose of his Consumer Guide, although I have a tendency to buy any album that gets an "A" from The Dean. What amazes me is how he can stuff so much into so few sentences. He was a master of the Twitter form before Twitter was invented. Take his Guide from June 1988, which included a review of a Joan Jett album that I've been quoting ever since:

JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: Up Your Alley (Epic) Jesus I wish she was just a little bit better than she actually is, and by closing side one with the cover exacta "Tulane" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog," she comes this close to convincing me she's made the leap. But though nobody else male or female puts out such a reliable brand of hard rock, lean and mean and pretension-free, and though being female gives her an edge in a quintessentially male subgenre, not since her start-up has she made something special of her populist instincts. It's almost as if that's the idea. B PLUS

Or, from the same guide, an example of the aforementioned ability to squeeze a lot into a little space:

HAIRSPRAY (MCA) Conceived by collector John Waters rather than some marketing strategist, this is a party record that doubles as proof of a sensibility, refurbishing the pre-Beatles '60s not by polishing girl-group touchstones but by mining the middle of the r&b charts. Dance mania rools, from the swinging popcult ecumenicism of Ray Bryant's "Madison Time" to the "Squish squish" backup of Gene & Wendell's "The Roach." The plot-advancing "Town Without Pity" doesn't quite fit, but by sticking Little Peggy March's "I Wish I Were a Princess" in between the funky-girl touchstone "You'll Lose a Good Thing" and the protosoulful "Nothing Takes the Place of You," Waters points up both its objective laughability and its seriousness in the mind of the behearer. This is camp at its best--giving the ridiculous its due because the ridiculous makes life worth struggling for. A MINUS

Having said all of this, I'd be lying if I claimed I was never clued in to something new-to-me when reading Christgau. Here are a couple off the top of my head.

Have Moicy! ("[T]hirteen homemade, chalky, fit-for-78 songs that renew the concept of American folk music as a bizarre apotheosis of the post-hippie estate. No losers, though--just loadsa laffs, a few tears, some death, some shit, a hamburger, spaghetti, world travel, crime, etc. A+")


I knew Al Green, but Christgau helped me appreciate Al Green. ("Al Green's Greatest Hits [Hi, 1975] Green is less open and imaginative than Sam Cooke and less painfully word-wise than Smokey Robinson, but he belongs in their company, that of two of the half dozen prime geniuses of soul. His musical monomania substitutes Memphis for James Brown's Macon, and the consistency of his albums is matched only by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. But because he spins his music out over an area not much larger than a hankie, the albums also translate beautifully to a greatest hits format, and this is flawless. For those who refuse to believe the LPs contain hidden treasure and don't care that the singles 'all sound the same.' And for those, like me, who can go both ways with him. A")


And it wouldn't be a post about Xgau without one of these, reviewing a PJ Harvey album. ("Rid of Me [Indigo, 1993] Never mind sexual--if snatches like 'Make me gag,' 'Lick my injuries,' and 'Rub 'til it bleeds' aren't genital per se, I'm a dirty old man. And if the cold raw meat of her guitar isn't yowling for phallic equality, I'm Robert Bly, which is probably the same thing. She wants that cock--a specific one, it would seem, attached to a full-fledged, nonobjectified male human being, or maybe an array or succession of cocks, it's hard to tell. But when she gets pissed off, which given the habits of male human beings happens all the time, she thinks it would be simpler just to posit or grow or strap on or cut off a cock of her own. After which it's bend-over-Casanova and every man for him or herself. A")