From the Archives: Robert Christgau (2002)

Answers From the Dean: Online Exchange with Robert Christgau (August 2002)


The second in our hopefully continuing series of online exchanges features Village Voice Senior Editor, Robert Christgau. Thanks to all the readers who sent in questions, to Tom Sawyer for invaluable editorial assistance, and of course to Robert Christgau for answering an astounding number of reader queries (I stopped counting somewhere around 75). On that note, there were, not surprisingly, some identical or very-closely-related questions from different readers. Some of these are answered once and left at that, while a handful of list-oriented questions are dealt with as a special “bonus answer” at the end of this feature.

Pictures of Robert Christgau by Carola Dibbell.

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> >From: Steven Rubio
> >Date: Monday, July 01, 2002 8:59 AM is a terrific resource, and the Consumer Guide lends itself perfectly to such an easily-searchable presentation. But the site is also an attempt to gather together pretty much every word in the published history of Bob Christgau, as if Pauline Kael, confronted with the need to pare down her life’s work into the 1,300 pages of For Keeps, said “fuck it, just reprint every book I ever published.” How much input does the Dean have into what goes into the web site? To the extent it represents a desire to get everything in one place, is there a conscious philosophy behind the web site, or does it “just happen?”

The web site is a co-operative project between myself and my dear old friend Tom Hull, who I met shortly after he queried me as Voice music editor from St. Louis in 1975. Not to put too fine a point on it, Tom is a computer genius as well as an excellent and very knowledgeable music critic, but he’d never done much web site work. The design of the web site, especially its high searchability and small interest in graphics, are his idea of what a useful music site should be, but I concur with them completely–I’m a text kind of guy. Tom is also very involved in Linux and various free software ideas, which I also concur with, but much less knowledgeably and not without a few reservations. I’ve never been a cyberspace utopian–have my doubts as to the morality and economic good sense of unlimited musical file-sharing, for instance–and since I make my living mostly as a writer, I worry a little about making all my stuff available for free. What does it do to my prospects of publishing another CG book, for instance, or future essay collections? Nevertheless, on balance I’m for it.

The site was set up shortly after September 11, when Tom got stuck here visiting New York from Wichita, where he lives. During the fall, I whiled away insomniac nights preparing old Voice pieces for uploading, but this year, between Pazz & Jop and a couple of big outside essay projects and then a month of hand and hernia surgeries in May, I haven’t worked on it much. So I was surprised to see how much old CG material had gone up. How did it get there? I wondered. The answer is that Tom and a small cybercoterie of devoted fans had inputted it by hand (with a fair number of typos, by the way). To be honest, I was honored and touched by this. But if the project was mine alone, I doubt I would have put some of the old material up, especially non-CG. The Playboy columns (which are as I wrote them, not as Playboy ran them) are rarely too deep, and much of the early CG material was rewritten for the book for a reason–I didn’t evolve my current high-density stylistic approach until 1975 or so. On the other hand, I’m happy to have my old book reviews up, as well as “Rock & Roll &” columns that didn’t make the Harvard collection, which is not to say I think every damn one is an utter keeper–I’m proud of the uniformly high quality of my writing, and never slough anything off, but at the end of the day, some pieces always come off better than others. One thing about cyperspace, however, is that selectivity really doesn’t make economic sense there, especially when searchability is an option. In a cardboard-and-paper compendium, that’s not how things would work. Make me a decent offer and I’ll select and edit away.

I just read my friend Ann Powers’s As I Get Old, and it hit very close to home. I’m 49, about midway in age between Ann and yourself, and I’m very interested in what you thought of her piece, and if you see yourself not only as a mentor to those who work with you but also as a role model for readers. I’ve always relied on rock critics to help me wend my way through the pop culture jungle (being a Berkeley guy, Marcus has been my primary guide, but he’s not the only one), but what Ann’s essay showed me was how writers like yourself have helped me understand how to get past being a teenager when it comes to pop music. As a teacher, I find “role model” to be a pretty oppressive job description, but here I am, pushing it onto someone I’ve never even met. (And I enjoy the irony that it took Ann, some years my junior, to explain to me what age means in this context.)

I’m not just flattered by Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, I’m impressed–a lot of writers pushing the envelope and writing at the top of their game. Ann’s piece showcases her strengths, which I think made her the best rock critic working during most of her Times tenure: range, thoughtfulness, and enormous heart, plus an ability to relate her personal experience to what she’s writing about without just rattling on cleverly about her life, as too often happens in autobiographical criticism that assumes way too much about how interesting the reader finds the writer. And she’s come through (and is still undergoing) personal health crises that as her good friend I care about a lot. Nevertheless, I will point out that she’s in the age range that’s always seemed to me the worst for this particular rock and roll question, 35-40, which is really when your physical mortality and loss of youthfulness tends to impinge on you–a crisis that’s much worse for the generations after mine, because they’ve been able to observe the various grotesqueries that too often ensue when aging rock and rollers try to pretend to be something they’re not.

I recently did a phoner with some radio ham who was just old enough to be pleased that the Stones were touring again (which I’m not) and wanted me to tell him that 60 wasn’t old. I laughed in his earpiece. It is old, three quarters or two thirds of most people’s effective lives if not much more (two of my best friends died at 65 and 60), and Jagger hasn’t handled it very well. But Dylan and Lou Reed and many others have, brilliantly if not always consistently. And so have some critics, myself included–it’s easier for us, of course, because criticism requires second-level creativity while making music is first-level. I hope Ann keeps writing about all kinds of music. For somebody with her spiritual wherewithal, it’s just a matter of wanting to do it, and she’ll do it in some kind of original way for sure.

As for being a role model, nobody with a public identity however modest has any choice. It’s part of the job; there’s no way to rid yourself of it. Does that mean fans should fuck teenagers on tape like R. Kelly or for that matter go to an ashram like Leonard Cohen? I hope not. But Kelly and Cohen are kidding themselves if they don’t think they’re putting the idea in people’s heads.

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> >From: Charles Bromley
> >Date: Monday, July 01, 2002 11:45 AM

You’ve said the Rolling Stones used to be your favorite band, but they aren’t anymore. Why did you lower your opinion of them, and where would you rank them now?

I still like the Stones a lot as a band, but as individuals, compared to such contemporaries as Dylan or Reed or Young, I find both Jagger and Richards–especially Jagger, of course, although Keith’s blood changes are an exercise of economic privilege every bit as dislikable as Mick’s posturing–harder and harder to suspend disbelief over. I can no longer go to the work and avoid what I know of the man. And this calls the realism I once prized in their work into question. I played Sticky Fingers not long ago and my wife said she couldn’t hear them anymore without snickering a little (that’s not how she put it, she’s no snickerer, but they just don’t mean much to her now). I enjoyed Sticky Fingers a lot myself. But its power was certainly diminished.

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> >From: John Monger
> >Date: Monday, July 01, 2002 12:02 PM

When it came up, what did you think of your fellow rock scribes jumping on stage and performing (say, John Mendelssohn or Patti Smith)? Ever get the urge yourself?

Christopher Milk was a bad band, but many other critics, notably Chrissie Hynde and Lenny Kaye (did Neil Tennant actually write criticism? if so, him too), have been in good ones. I don’t think of Patti as a critic myself, just a creative person with some Creem bylines, but I obviously approved. In alt-land these days that kind of crossover happens all the time, but most of the critics involved are of small consequence, ditto the bands. I never saw that Marcus-Marsh-King thing and suspect I would have been embarrassed if I did. Me, I don’t want to play–I wanna have a radio show, for money. Although I did have some dreams about leading a successful band as a hobby five years or so ago. I also have dreams that I can stride 20 or 30 feet at a time.

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> >From: Nigel Bartlett
> >Date: Monday, July 01, 2002 12:52 PM

When the 2000 Pazz & Jop poll results came out in the Voice, they were quickly blasted by Mike Doughty from Soul Coughing in the New York Press for attempting to critically “quantify” music.

I have two questions: What are your thoughts on Doughty and his diatribe against music criticism in general and Pazz & Jop in particular? And do you feel that the Pazz & Jop poll is a valid indicator of critical appeal, popular appeal, musical success, or any other factor(s)?

I don’t expect artists to like or understand my criticism, although it happens–nobody likes to be judged, and making music and writing criticism are radically different creative endeavors. The anti-quantification argument typifies the difference. I believe in quantification, obviously–as one useful method among many. Specifically, I believe it is an essential component of democracy–all electoral systems quantify value. Pazz & Jop is based on a notion of consensus that capital in its nasty rationalizing way is doing its darnedest to render obsolete, and is therefore not as useful as it used to be. What it measures, obviously, is critical appeal. When a lot of people who hear a lot of records agree on one, that means something. A lot of records have surfaced in Pazz & Jop and gone on to gradually accrue various kinds of status, including sales–most recently in the case of Moby’s Play, which won the poll long before it broke.

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> >From: Steven Ward
> >Date: Monday, July 01, 2002 1:47 PM

Many critics have admitted giving a particular band or album a critical thrashing, but later changing his or her mind. Any albums out there that you love now but dissed back then when first released?

If I change my mind much, it’s in the other direction. The whole point of the Consumer Guide method, which theVoice lets me get away with and most timeliness-obsessed mags wouldn’t, is that I don’t write about something until I know what I think, and one of my biggest skills as a critic (which took years to learn) is that I know when I know what I think. So while it happens occasionally that I’ll overrate something, get entranced and then tire of the tricks over the space of a year or a decade, it almost never happens that I underrate something (as opposed to missing something and then catching up later). In the ’90s, the only big example I could find was the second Shania Twain album, the 1995 pop breakthrough The Woman in Me. Too bad, my pan was pretty convincing.

Many former and present Voice writers who have been interviewed at cite your editing style. Something done line by line and word and word. They say you can smell bullshit a mile away and that you always make their copy better while retaining the writer’s spirit and intention. My question is, who did you learn the skill of editing from; or, who was your Robert Christgau?

If I had a Robert Christgau, it was Ellen Willis, but then, if she had an Ellen Willis, it was Robert Christgau. When we lived together 1966-69, we edited each other more stringently than any of the pros we worked with, many of whom were pretty good (I especially recall Don Erickson at Esquire). We just worked harder at it (and interfered more) than the pros did. It’s really not such a mystery–certainly Tom Carson and Kit Rachlis, to name a couple who say they learned it from me, are as good at it as I am. You just have to care a lot, and really want the writer to say what the writer wants to say, which for many writer-editors is psychologically impossible. I’d also like to mention the wonderful man who edited my first book in 1972, Harris Dienstfrey. A very good line editor who taught me a lot. One other thing I should mention–I’m not a spewing kind of writer myself, like Lester or early Meltzer or even Greil Marcus sometimes (he told me he wrote the introduction to the Stranded reprint, a brilliant piece of writing, in…was it 40 minutes? or 25?). I edit myself, painfully and continually. Obviously that helps me edit others.

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> >From: Scott Woods
> >Date: Monday, July 01, 2002 6:27 PM

A few years ago, Rock & Rap Confidential started their own International Music Writers Poll. Though I think their version is incredibly ill-conceived, the one interesting thing they’ve tried to do is give their poll more of an international reach, with voters coming in from as far and wide as Argentina, Hong Kong, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, et al. I note, however, that Pazz & Jop itself has recently extended ballots to critics in such exotic locales as Australia, Britain, and Canada. How is it decided who gets a ballot? And do you see Pazz & Jop opening up its geographical borders to any greater degree in the future, or do you want it to retain a uniquely “American” flavor? (And does the fact that the Voice garners new readers on the Internet affect your thoughts on this at all?)

The thing with Pazz & Jop is–it has to stop somewhere, and the U.S. of A. is a reasonable demarcation point. Since the dream of consensus continues to haunt the democrat in me (which is a pretty deep part of me), the idea that everyone can in theory share the same frame of reference (while obviously deteriorating ever since I wrote my first Voice column in 1969 and by now an utter chimera in a time when nobody’s on all the mailing lists or could listen to everything that came in the mail if s/he was) is one I’d like to leave open theoretically. The only way the Internet changes this is that it’s easier for critics to work in America from overseas. I think that’s how thatAustralian guy got in there. My rule is, once we invite you, however mistakenly, we can’t disinvite you (and also his comments were pretty good). Canada’s a different story–I’ve always made a few exceptions for Canada. It’s at least as American as Berkeley (not to mention Manhattan), don’t you think?

It’s safe to say that no other rock critic has ever covered as wide a range of music as you have. In terms of genres or significant artists, what–if any–do you think are your blind spots as a music critic?

First of all, I don’t think I cover more kinds of music than any other critic. I think I’m remarkably enthusiastic and knowledgeable about African music and that confuses people. Jon Pareles and Chuck Eddy, to cite just two colleagues who jump to mind, have as broad a range as I do. As for my limitations, they’re public and they’re legion. Metal, art-rock, bluegrass, gospel, Irish folk, fusion jazz (arghh)–all prejudices I’m prepared to defend and in most cases already have, but prejudices nevertheless. I pretty much lost reggae with dancehall; my acquaintance with most techno is a nodding one (zzzz); I’ve never really liked salsa even though Puerto Rico is one of my favorite places on earth and my daughter loves salsa and my niece and nephew run a fucking music club in San Juan. (Admittedly, all my rels share my fondness for older Cuban-influenced styles.) Mostly the salsa thing is a matter of brass tuttis–I’ve never liked most ’30s jazz because I don’t like tuttis. I also don’t like flutes or vibraphones most of the time. As I said, I’m prepared to argue these prejudices–even the tuttis. I oppose shows of virtuosity and undisciplined outpourings of self-regarding emotion on deeply held aesthetic grounds. But since I’m always ready to make specific exceptions to any such generalization, it would certainly be fair to argue that in all the above styles I’m not ready enough.

Oh yeah–classical music. Did I mention classical music?

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> >From: Cachay Alegre Raul
> >Date: Tuesday, July 02, 2002 5:40 PM

Rock music is now a powerful way of expression for thousands and thousands of poor and angry young nonconformists in Latin American countries like mine, Peru. Do you think that, maybe, only maybe, the true, revolutionary spirit of rock music subsists in those places where the record industry is extremely weak like the occidental Third World countries?

Also, do you think all this media hype surrounding the garage rock revival of the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Hives is creating some kind of animosity against those bands? I mean, do you really like them?

I must begin any answer to these questions, which I see as one question, by saying that I’ve long hated the rock-critical misuse and overuse of the terms “hype” and “revolutionary.” “Hype is a term often applied to someone else’s promotion,” I wrote in 1972, which I’d now amend to the snappier “hype is a bad word for someone else’s publicity.” And in a 1970 essay called “Rock ‘n’ Revolution”–collected in Any Old Way You Choose It and on the web site–I explained why I wasn’t revolutionary and rock wasn’t either. I expand on this in the introduction to Cooper Square Press’s Any Old Way reprint.

All artists promote themselves; if they didn’t, you wouldn’t know who they were. The mysterious Hives took me by surprise, but I was well aware of both the Strokes and the White Stripes long before they got real publicity, much less major-label muscle, and I’d swear on penalty of perjury that their musical attributes had New Yorkers who’d seen them excited as soon as they first gigged (Strokes) or hit town (White Stripes). Maybe the Hives were as constructed as ‘N Sync, not a bad group in my book, but I doubt it. I like their record even more than White Blood Cells or Is This It.

As for revolution, Christ, what can I say? As a vocal and explicit leftist for my entire professional life, I want to see a radical redistribution of wealth and an end to racism, sexism, and homophobia. But that won’t make me pretend there’s anything inherently communist or socialist about rock and roll–at its inception, it was an expression of democracy at its American best and capitalism at its entrepreneurial best. Forgetting Eastern Europe for the moment and Afghanistan longer than that, the most successful radical changes of power in the past few decades have been in South Africa and, God help us, Iran. In the case of South Africa, the beat music I love best from the apartheid period, r&b-inflected mbaqanga, was at best a sustaining social force; it had no political content or thrust except as an expression of identity and pride. The revolutionary music, which really did serve a political function, was a cappella mbube as exploited by the ANC and the union movement, not any kind of “rock.” You want a revolution, which in Peru is understandable, forget rock and roll and get involved in the union movement, which was certainly the most effective internal force in South Africa and has the advantage of improving the lives of the poor incrementally just in case the revolution doesn’t kick in. You want a revolution, make sure it isn’t like Iran’s, which banned music. That means doing your damnedest to keep the Senderos out of it. Revolutionaries tend to be puritans. Rock and rollers tend not to be. I prefer rock and rollers. And I’ve always argued that one reason revolutionaries start so few revolutions is that puritans are a pain in the ass.

That said, I agree that white middle-class American males have a harder time revitalizing rock and roll than people who need to struggle for its musical prerogatives. But on the other hand, white American males are generally better-versed in its prerogatives, which is how we get inspired neoclassical formalists like the Strokes and the White Stripes. To me, rock en espanol, so-called, almost always looks better on paper than it sounds coming out of my speakers, for reasons I assume are personal matters of taste, as I explain in the Subjects for Further Research section of the ’90s CG book. I’m not saying I’m right, but I don’t get it; speaking Spanish would probably help. And though rock en espanol has its own formal approach, a lot of the “progressive” music I hear from so-called Third World countries (Sepultura from Brazil, Junoon from Pakistan) seems locked in to arena-rock notions of grandeur that I haven’t had any use for since punk–although one exception to that generalization (every generalization I’m making here and elsewhere has exceptions) is Pulnoc from Czechoslovakia, where rock did promulgate social change. Go figure.

Finally, what I figure is this. The fact that white middle-class American males have a hard time revitalizing rock and roll leaves a lot of work open for white middle-class American females. You go grrrls.

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> >From: Stanley Whyte
> >Date: Wednesday, July 03, 2002 10:15 AM

Do you ever look back at your 30+ A lists, scan the lower reaches for discs that you gave an A- to at the time and think, “I have no idea what that record sounds like anymore”?

I just looked over the bottom reaches of my ’70s A lists and had no trouble recalling the general sound and feel of every record there. Do I remember all or most of the specific songs on those records? Probably not.

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> >From: Jeff Hamilton
> >Date: Wednesday, July 03, 2002 3:08 PM

Do you still perceive rock ‘n’ roll as at the vanguard of cultural and social formation? And if so, on what basis can you claim the significance of what you write about (i.e., pop music)? Obviously, there’s a premise here about the relation of rock ‘n’ roll to popular music, and in recent years you’ve been involved in opening up the term pop to musics you once more or less disdained (Richard Rogers, non-Anglo-American pop, world music, etc); so, too, I assume that since your politics have not considerably repudiated the New Left, the cultural vanguard remains a desirable claim on which to stake your intellectual labor. But do you ever worry about the way pop (and particularly pop music) rescales emerging cultural vanguards? Do I have your work on pop (and semi-pop) music right in describing it as a corrective for the distorted–perhaps even grandiose?–claims about the cultural and especially political significance of rock ‘n’ roll decadence and liberation that founded rock criticism as a journalistic beat?

Since I find both the tone and terms of this multiple-part question confusing if not contradictory, let me make a few necessarily unfocused points. Did I ever perceive rock and roll as being “at the vanguard of cultural and social formation”? Not in such jargon, that’s for sure. At this point I don’t feel any need to claim significance for what I do–the proof is in the pudding. People find what I do interesting, I find what I write about interesting, everything else is a bonus. My fundamental political conviction about rock and roll has always been that it’s democratic. For all the complications that term involves, complications that in my view I’ve explored for hundreds of thousands of words and have no need to expand upon here, that continues to be true in countless different if not apparently contradictory ways–pop is democratic in one way, alt/indie is democratic in another, hip hop is democratic(sometimes even at its most bling bling) in another, Africans playing electric guitars are democratic in yet another. For a long time I thought rock and roll was proof that capitalism was or could be democratic too–not a fact that ever made me happy in itself, just one that any realistic progressive had to take into account. In many ways it still is. But I’m appalled by the evolution of megacorporate structure, and even though there’s still good work done by good people who make their livings within that structure, the structure itself is much worse than anything I fully envisioned 30 years ago, although John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar certainly presaged it, scarily enough. As far as “rock ‘n’ roll decadence and liberation,” well, the notion that “decadence” is “liberating” has always been a bugbear of mine. But I don’t think it “founded rock criticism as a journalistic beat,” whatever that means–I don’t even find the idea in Bangs or Meltzer, who I suppose are who you’re thinking of. (Nick Kent, maybe. So what?)

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> >From: Brent by God Sanders from Chattanooga by God Tennessee
> >Date: Wednesday, July 03, 2002 10:30 PM

Why do you hate Rock and Roll so much?

Why do you think southern born rock performers are only worthwhile when they conform to your bumpkin specificities (hey, if you can make up words, so can I)? And why do you think that using derogatory slurs against them is okay?

Who died and left you boss?

Do you really think that your intimate relations with a thesaurus so easily masks your obvious clueless frame of reference for the subject you write about?

And isn’t Greil kind of a pussy name?

Fuck you too, asshole.

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> >From: Chris Feik
> >Date: Thursday, July 04, 2002 10:47 PM

OK, OK, of course rock and roll is America and America is rock and roll. But in an age of creeping American unilateralism I wonder about occasional parochialism in your writing of Rock History (not so much recently, I admit). When you wrote about “avant-punk” way back in 1977, you assimilated it into the legacy of American acts like the Stooges and New York Dolls. Seems wrong now–those bands were drug-fucked suburban aesthetes, whereas the Pistols and the Clash had something else cooking. In Australia–no slouch when it comes to provincialism–the first Saints record was a triumph of angle-grinding guitar that drew on the Stooges, etc., but meshed it with the Brit Migrant Experience. It was avant-punk, no worries, but for you it was a “naive one-shot” or some such. Kraut-rock never got a guernsey in your Consumer Guides despite the undeniable joys of Neu! And I can’t believe you would just dismiss Abba like that. What’s going on, Robert?

First of all, I don’t think the Stooges or the Dolls were suburban aesthetes–Iggy was some kind of trailer trash and Johansen is from Staten Island, which ain’t the suburbs (and of course Thunders and Nolan were much proler). In any case the connection I drew was formal, which is undeniable in an evolutionary way. What’s more, to me the idea that the Dolls and of course the Ramones (also in no way suburban, ever been to the boroughs, man?) made Britpunk possible is an absolute historical fact. Where I dissent is from the stupid Legs McNeill bullshit that the Clash and the Pistols weren’t different and every bit as good. Going on to the question of Yurrup, well, band for band I don’t hear it that way. I tried to like the Neu! reissues and didn’t get as far as I did with Can, can still barely get through an Abba comp much less an album, though I do love the predictable specific songs. More to the point, I got into pop out of the conviction that America and Europe are at war culturally, and statuswise it’s clear to me that America is still the underdog–that Europeans, the British and the French and the Germans each in their own way, continue to look down their noses at American vulgarity, and Americans continue to suck it up. And I also continue to believe that the African influence on this particular polyglot, democratic, geographically heterogeneous yet electronically hooked-up culture gives the U.S. insuperable advantages in pop, as evidenced most recently in hip hop, now an undeniable world music where the U.S. maintains an undeniable musical edge.

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> >From: Cindy C.
> >Date: Fri, 5 Jul 2002 12:18:43 EDT

I would like to know what your favorite bootleg albums are, i.e., what great “A” albums are we missing simply because the material isn’t officially released? I know you listed Pulnoc’s Live in New York on your 1989 A list. Is this available for purchase anywhere? You also mentioned Television’s Arrow. Is the newly remastered The Blow Up better than the old ROIR cassette–only a B+? What are your Top 5 favorite bootleg CDs?

Basically, I’m not interested in bootlegs. The ones mentioned in the letter are every one I’ve ever cared about except for the techno mix tape DJ DB gave me in 1993 and a few live tapes by Tin Huey I used to play in the late ’70s–and, oh yeah, I own the Stones’ “Cocksucker Blues,” that’s nice, and I think I own a Neil Young boot or two. The Pulnoc isn’t available, but a less distinguished similar CD recorded the night after is, assuming Globus International is still in business; I explain the difference in the ’90s CG book. All these records are by artists I had a personal connection to–people I reported on, usually. Generous fans send me tapes and records now and again, and Greil Marcus once persuaded me to drop 80 bucks or something on Dylan’s Ten of Swords (in addition to giving me other precious items, notably the Manchester concert), but I never seem to get into them. I’d rather check out more of the generally available stuff I’m always behind on. I know bootlegs aren’t all collectoritis, rarity for its own sake, and adoration of the genius. But too often they’re close. Really not my kind of thing.

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> >From: Frank Kogan
> >Date: Friday, July 05, 2002 9:07 PM

Could you say more about canons? When interviewed by Barbara O’Dair you expressed ambivalence towards them, leaning more (I thought) towards distrust. I myself think that a canon can be bad or good: in philosophy, the canon has narrowed and distorted the field. In film criticism, however, the auteurist canon, esp. Sarris’s, has had a wildly positive effect, encouraging interest in everything and rescuing whole areas of culture from oblivion. I think canon-making–e.g., The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll–has helped rock criticism more than hurt it (so far) and hasn’t stopped me from liking K-Tel’s 1975 Disco Mania compilation even more than the Who’s Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy.

I think canons can be very useful, both as monoculture, a body of aesthetic knowledge and experience for people to share (and also rebel against), and, shit yes, as a list of high-quality works for people to, shit yes, consume. But when the rock and roll canon becomes the domain of MTV and Rolling Stone, it obviously loses a lot of its charm, greatly accelerating the chief negative effect of canonicity, which is to leach the freshness and charm from art–an effect that already occurs naturally in time, but is intensified by respectability. To put it another way, I’m not at all sure that Chuck Berry wouldn’t be better off as a living artist without the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although it’s probably done wonders for his accrued wealth. My own relationship to the rock and roll canon has clearly changed with the years. The 70s Consumer Guide book is definitely a kind of canon-defining work, making the case for Van Morrison and, say, the McGarrigle sisters, and against Black Sabbath and, say, Donny Hathaway. But one reason I devoted a whole Voice supplement to my various ’70s preferences while tucking my top 10 of the ’80s in agate into an essay and not bothering with a ’90s list is that no one including me could imagine that anybody but me thinks Guitar Paradise of East Africa and Latin Playboys are the two greatest albums of the ’90s. I think the canon is far murkier, vaster, and more various now than it was 20 years ago, and that this trend will likely continue. I don’t think that’s necessarily good, either. But it’s the way it is.

Who are the 5 best ballad singers of the rock ‘n’ roll era? By “ballad” I mean “Moon River” not “Barbara Allen.” “Rock ‘n’ roll era” can mean whatever you want it to.

  • Frank Sinatra
  • George Jones
  • Willie Nelson
  • Al Green
  • Elvis PresleyIf Sinatra ain’t rock-era enough for you, just stick in Justin Timberlake. Billie Holiday isn’t even rock-era enough for me.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Wayne Greene
    > >Date: Saturday, July 06, 2002 11:29 AM

    Major or indie–you asked for it…

  • If Artemis, distributed by RED, is considered major distribution, then Bloodshot, distributed by ADA, must be the same.
  • RED–owned by SONY.
  • ADA owned by AOL-Time Warner–furthermore, all of ADA’s back end finance, manufacturing, and pick-pack-and-ship is all performed by WEA.
  • Real World–distributed by Virgin/ EMI.
  • Rounder–distributed by Universal/ UMVD.
  • Mondo Melodia–distributed by Ark21/ UMVD.
    You obviously know more about this stuff than I do. For over a year I’ve contemplated writing a piece about what is now indie, which would involve doing research of exactly the sort your question involves. I’ve rejected the idea mostly because it seems too damn specialized, although given how many protestations of virtue go into these questions maybe I should. My basic suspicion is that deals vary so much that any generalization is difficult if not impossible. Independent distribution is such a threatened business that distribution in itself can no longer be a test of whether you’re indie or not. In this particular case I’d want to talk with the heads of Artemis, Bloodshot, and Ark 21, all relatively accessible guys, and see what they have to say. My information has RealWorld going through Narada. Is Narada in turn Virgin/EMI? Oops, missed that. Does anybody really want us to know? Often I think not.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: OvrwrkdB
    > >Date: Saturday, July 06, 2002 10:04 PM

    In your section of reviews of albums by the Who, you called The Who Sell Out “their only great album” and yet, you gave Who’s Next an A, downgraded from your original grade of A+. Isn’t this a contradiction? Or is there a further explanation at work here ?

    The brief answer is that for a long time I’ve found it surprisingly hard to listen to the Who. In the ’70s book I rankWho’s Next seventh, although I think it was my number one in the zeroth or first Pazz & Jop. Now it would certainly dip below BlueJohn PrineZOSO, the long-lost Cry of Love, probably the even longer-lost Motel Shot, and others. I put it on for the first time in at least a decade as I began writing this, and it certainly sounds good. But in the ’80s it became clear–I edited a great piece by Mick Farren that made the argument very strongly–that the Who had turned into (very nearly) the worst kind of art-rock band, and with benefit of hindsight all that synth noodling and Daltrey emoting on Who’s Next makes me a little nauseous. Anyway, I always loved The Who Sell Out best of all.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Mark D. Bradford
    > >Date: Monday, July 08, 2002 7:13 AM

    One of the most startling things I’ve ever read about/by any critic, was an interview Dave Marsh gave not long ago in which he talked about how upset he was when Harry Chapin died. Harry Chapin. They had to agree to disagree about Harry’s records, but they’d been good friends, anyway. (Maybe there’s more–or less–to that. I wouldn’t know.) Somewhat similarly, Pauline Kael once talked about having been very friendly with Jean Renoir (or Sam Peckinpah?), and how painful it was for both of them when his work went into decline. Have you ever been in a comparable position?

    I believe friendship is more important than music, which is probably why I have so few friends who are musicians, the only “famous” ones people I knew long before they were “famous”–Roy Nathanson, who I met when he was Ray Dobbins’s 21-year-old boyfriend, former Mofungo bassist Robert Sietsema and that circle, some salsa musicians who I’m connected to via a niece-and-nephew who managed a band and then opened a club in San Juan, a few jazz players who are friends of my trumpet-moonlighting brother-in-law. In those cases I’ve sometimes reviewed records anyway, since omitting them would read wrong in the CG code that anything omitted isn’t worth my while. I once panned a Phil Ochs record and then got to know him doing political work in the ’60s–he quoted my meanest comment (“couldn’t play the guitar any worse were his right hand webbed,” I think) in his press kit and died owing me five bucks. And God knows I’ve really liked a few of the musicians I’ve met. But in general this sort of thing doesn’t happen to me. And I always wonder about journalists, especially critics, who form close relationships with lots of musicians. Bad for the work, seems to me. I hate saying negative things about people I like. But I grit my teeth and do it anyway, as pungently as possible.Less general topic: Can. Erstwhile part of the Euro-“progressive” problem, with occasional, largely unrealized hints of a solution. You reserved judgment in ’70s CG book, and panned Soon Over Babaluma, made roughly two years after their semi-improvised Stockhausen synthesis began to decay into tuneful air conditioning. But unlikeaficionados who prize the earlier, “sprawling” Tago Mago, I prize it only for the singularly unsprawling (and never equaled by them) lead cuts on what was once Side 1: three abrasive tracks-resembling-tunes that cross-reference Stockhausen via Fun House rather than Miles Davis (who was listening to a lot of Stockhausen himself, actually; cf. “Calypso Frelimo”). Bullshit?

    I‘ll try to dig out Tago Mago and play those three tracks. But I put enough time into that band to be highly dubious. Their instrumental tone and rhythmic feel always seem at least somewhat wrong to me. I’ve listened to too much jazz to settle for less.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Chris Feik
    > >Date: Monday, July 08, 2002 10:06 PM

    Why is Lionel Trilling one of your heroes?

    To be honest, I almost never look at Trilling anymore–he certainly isn’t up there with Raymond WilliamsPauline KaelA.J. Liebling, or for that matter my friend Marshall Berman, who has most of his virtues, a much broader frame of reference, and none of the half-conscious snobbery that’s such a drag on Trilling’s moral/political impulses. But Trilling stood out back in the New Criticism days (which I always maintained presaged text-first poststructuralism far more than the pomo crowd generally admits) for insisting that literature was always more than text, and the clarity and grace of his prose put him on another level from his lit-crit contemporaries. Stylistically he makes a nice corrective to the knottiness of Williams, who together with Kael I regard as the greatest critic of the 20th century (that I’ve read). Without having rechecked either, I’d guess I’d still feel more agreement with Trilling on Jane Austen than with Edward Said, even though recent readings of Persuasion and Mansfield Park very much brought home Said’s criticism of the unacknowledged sociopolitical underpinnings of Austen’s enlightened civility.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: George Koo
    > >Date: Monday, July 08, 2002 10:51 PM

    What do you feel about DJ culture? DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, X-ecutioners, etc. Do you feel that they are legitimate artists or just creative opportunists?

    I think DJ Shadow is some kind of visionary genius, like Kid Koala’s album a lot, and was completely delighted by Koala in the context of Bullfrog earlier this year. But for the most part I think there’s too much technique and not enough content in DJing. Musically it strikes me as being a little like drum solos or African percussion ensembles–usually I want more.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Dave Q
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 09, 2002 3:32 AM

    Hi Dean! You are truly God-like and I know all your books inside out and back to front–as a writer you are without peer. (The Dave Mason section in the ’70s CG book is the best comedy writing I have ever seen.) However, this question is directed to the “critic” more than the “writer”–does it ever bother you that many of the acts dismissed as “meltdown” or “D-” in earlier CGs have gone on to be revered and subject to massive critical re-estimation (e.g. Black Sabbath, Tim Buckley), while others who you championed (e.g., various singer-songwriters) have vanished without trace, and their records aren’t even in print anymore? When current bands that you like cite Rush, Japan and Montrose as “influences” does it elicit a benign chuckle, or a Homer Simpson forehead-slap, or do you see it as more depressing evidence that civilization really is ending? I’m just wondering how this affects writers in general as we’re in a unique period in history where the pioneers of a sub-genre (rockcrit) are still active but have now been around long enough to see what effect their ideas have had on pop music, or pop music discourse at least.

    It’s never occurred to me that ’70s AOR/art-rock is responsible for the shallowness of today’s pop, such as it is. Studio virtuosity has been a law unto itself in pop since before the rock era.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Astral Weaks
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 09, 2002 1:07 PM

    What was it like at the inception of rockcrit, back in the mid-’60s? And did you still think that you would be doing it today?

    We were making it up as we went along and made a lot of mistakes along the way, but the best of us were onto something of tremendous importance intellectually. I thought it would always be part of what I did, didn’t imagine it would be all of it.

    What do you feel that the field has gained and lost since then?

    It’s gained professionalism and a body of knowledge, and lost inspiration (an organic maturing process) and freedom (I blame capitalism).

    What do you feel about the apparent decline in standing critics have had with labels since the ’70s? The way I’ve read it, labels used to be more than happy to sponsor junkets and give out records, while today they won’t even send out anything due to fear of critical piracy and leaks.

    All us early rock critics made our own rules because we were the only game in town. That meant among other things that if we wanted to write actual criticism, we could. Soon, although less soon than might have been predicted, both editors and imitators realized it was possible to prepare a less demanding rock-journalistic product, and true critics have been embattled ever since. As for the record companies, all celebrity journalism has been subjected to similar constrictions. Celebrity journalism feeds off access to fame, an easily controllable commodity. The more writers out there, the less access you have to give them to get what you want.

    Have you ever objected to the winning album/single in the Pazz and Jop poll? If so, what, why, and who did better?

    I thought Imperial Bedroom and the Arrested Development album were bad choices and said why at the time.

    Do you remember how much your first Rolling Stones concert tickets cost?

    Five bucks Canadian, I believe–maybe four. I never had to buy them again.

    Word association/opinions on:

    Richard Goldstein & Sgt. Pepper
    He was wrong. He’s wrong about Eminem too.

    Dennis Wilson 

    “Now Sounds” 
    What are they?

    The latest Stones tour. 
    I’m not going unless somebody begs.

    Wes Anderson 
    Seems pretty good, prefer Mira Nair.

    The “new” NYC/Brooklyn scene. 
    I’m too old for scenes, but I’m sorry I haven’t seen more of the bands.

    “The Osbournes” 
    Good show that portends many worse shows.

    Not what it should be.

    The absence of bass players in some of today’s best bands. 
    Sleater-Kinney seems to motorvate without, but I can’t think of another one offhand.

    Anthony DeCurtis 
    Detested his priggish, status-conscious Lester Bangs piece.

    Uncut magazine 
    Is that about foreskins?

    “Punk Chic” 
    The only Chic I ever liked had Bernard Edwards in it.

    Sound Opinions
    Opinions are like brains–everybody’s got one.

    Clear Channel Communications 
    May they go out of business in ignominy without further compromising my 401k.

    I’ve crossed the country by automobile 10 times and would love to do it again.

    Seo Taji, the inventor of hardcore Korean “Pimp-Rock.” 
    I have a thing against pimps.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Robert B. Tomshany
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 09, 2002 4:36 PM

    If it’s OK to ask about your daughter Nina, I’d like to inquire about her reactions to being reared by two professional writers and exposed to a huge amount of music. You’ve commented on Nina’s musical acuity before, and I’m sure you’ll do so again, but now that she’s fast approaching full-fledged adulthood I wonder whether she might express her talent by making music herself? Or, having two writers for parents, might she be more interested in a literary career, whether writing about music or something else? Also, if she seems clearly headed in one of these two directions, how does she see her relationship to these fields–art/show business on the one hand, or literature/journalism on the other?

    Nina shows no interest in being a writer, although she attributes her large vocabulary to growing up around us. She’s a pretty talented musician, but so far hasn’t been inclined to pursue that either. Insofar as she thinks about a career in music, she thinks about the biz or the studio. But she’s just finished her junior year in high school. Really, who knows?

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Chris Feik<>
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 09, 2002 7:40 PM

    Why do you reckon that Afropop has had such little influence on rock/pop emanating from the English-speaking world, whereas reggae/dub influenced the sound and feel of everything from Clapton to the Clash to Ace of Base?

    Reggae’s less foreign. It’s r&b-derived. It’s in English, an attraction never to be discounted. It comes from the Americas. And the rhythm’s easier–a distant cousin of the polka via ska, I’ve long believed. It’s really hard to imagine the Bellamy Brothers doing a competent mbalax or soukous rip.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Martin Miller
    > >Date: Wednesday, July 10, 2002 12:39 AM

    First, I would like to say that I have enjoyed your opinions on music for almost 20 years now and eagerly await your Consumer Guide column every month. I’m writing to ask your opinions on several albums that you’ve mentioned in passing but haven’t given a grade to due to fact that the records were released as imports or they existed before your Consumer Guide column was established. Anyway here’s the list:

    Blue Cheer, Oh Pleasant Hope 
    A late-’69 release that got a B+ and I haven’t heard since approximately 1980, if then.

    Adverts, Crossing the Red Sea 
    A Greil Marcus fave I never got (he does like those Britpunk bands with women in them)–I think the Adverts boil down to “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.”

    Beach Boys, Pet Sounds 
    A good record that never meant anything to me personally–I prefer any early GH, also Wild Honey and many other late-’60s early-’70s albums.

    Del Shannon, Further Adventures of Charles Westover 
    Silly record.

    The Serpent Power 
    A solid A-, now available on CD.

    Moby Grape, Wow 
    B plus at the time, I play the Legacy twofer.

    Jefferson Airplane, Crown of Creation 
    Their best album, I thought at the time, although my initial dislike of them reasserted itself bigtime around 10 or 15 years ago.

    Soft Boys, Underwater Moonlight 
    Sounded good when I checked it out mid-’80s and I think I replayed the CD reissue, but you know, Robyn Hitchcock definitely ain’t my guy.

    Swamp Dogg, Total Destruction to Your Mind 
    My introduction to Jerry Williams, an A- at the time that I wouldn’t swear has maintained there.

    Streets–English punk compilation on Beggars Banquet label 
    A minus.

    Any studio or compilation album by Cream, Them, or the Yardbirds with a grade A- or higher 
    My fave Cream album is Goodbye, second Fresh Cream, certainly no other A minuses there, and I’ve never liked the Yardbirds on more than a cut-by-cut basis despite many attempts to enlighten myself; maybe it’s that Mickey Most thing, or maybe it’s the singing and songwriting, eh?

    Chrysalis, Definition 
    I remember the band name, vaguely.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Rodney Taylor
    > >Date: Wednesday, July 10, 2002 6:31 AM

    One of the things that I like about you is that your ears can appreciate both the Backstreet Boys and Sonic Youth. Do you think this reflects your having grown up when “popular” and “quality” weren’t seen as mutually exclusive categories, and do you see any kind of generation divide among rock critics (not to oversimplify or anything)? Do you think today’s rockcrit establishment, by and large, would have liked Elvis P. at the time, or would they have preferred folk or jazz purity?

    I think there’s no more important issue in rock criticism than the one you suggest–the idea that popular means bad not only is hell on good criticism, it’s a perversion of why and how rock criticism started. As with the novel, where a similar mindset leads arbiters to conclude that Walter Abish is more important than Bruce Sterling, what makes all but the most abstract subcultural rock work descends from the same kind of formal grounding that made Chuck Berry popular almost half a century ago. Yet the opposite is a working assumption of most young critics, especially the more adventurous ones, adventurous and smart being far from the same thing. That said, I think a lot of what’s popular today is very bad indeed. I only listen to the radio when I’m in the same room with my daughter, don’t recognize half of what’s played, and rarely feel much impulse to dispense with my ignorance. And that said, the best show I’ve caught all year, easy, was by Pink. We’ll see whether Orchestra Baobab/Super Rail Band matches up.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Charles Carlino
    > >Date: Wednesday, July 10, 2002 8:32 AM

    What do/did you have against Laura Nyro’s music anyway? Be as short or long-winded as you want.

    Hyperromanticsm generally turns my stomach, as do earth mothers. She did write some good tunes, though.

    In an old review of an Essra Mohawk album, you said: “When she calls herself a ‘full-fledged woman,’ it sounds like ‘pool player’s’ woman, which given her persona makes more sense.” What did you mean by “given her persona?” She’s a mysterious figure, sure, but what exactly is her persona?

    All I knew or know about Essra Mohawk is that album, which suggested (as I recall, and what I don’t recall is whether morbid curiosity tempted me to put on the reissue, so we’re talking 32 years ago) hyperromantic earth mother more likely to dig macho jerks than pencil-necked geeks. Although come to think of it most pool players aren’t exactly musclebound.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Jim McGaw
    > >Date: Wednesday, July 10, 2002 5:46 AM

    I’ve always been curious about the number of times you generally listen to a CD/album before grading it, and whether that number of spins has gone up or down over the years. Due to the nature of your job, it must be frustrating that you simply don’t have the time–unlike a casual fan–to listen to some of your favorite CDs over and over again.

    If you’ll read the intros to my CD books, you’ll see that not having time for my favorite music has long been the biggest drawback to this job. Nevertheless, the figures remain the same: at least three listens for an HM or written pan of any sort, at least five for anything that makes the body of the CG, and those are the low-end figures. That means spins, not dedicated listens–a lot of it is just processing while I do something else. But it does take time.

    Are there many artists whose catalogues you’ve completely reassessed in terms of your critical reception–and how has getting older played a part in all that? (Example: You once included Frank Sinatra in a “Meltdown” list, but years later gave a few of his reissues/compilations an A or A-.)

    People keep asking me this question and the answer is always the same: one hallmark of my work is that I don’t write about something until I know what I think. This means I don’t change my mind much, although I might if I had more time to relisten, I suppose. I do change it a little. As for Sinatra, he sucked in the ’80s. Also, hyperbole and cognitive dissonance are fun.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Paul Hayden
    > >Date: Thursday, July 11, 2002 9:43 AM

    In the past 5 to 10 years, which artist has pleasantly surprised you the most, and which artist has disappointed you the most?

    The rough answer to that question would probably be the past 20 years’ two most durable and prolific artists, with the possible confusing exception of Youssou N’Dour, whose quality is more tied up in live performance: Prince and Sonic Youth. I thought Prince could keep going forever, and while he may yet, he’s definitely slowed down in the past five years. From anybody else his recent output would be more than acceptable; from him it seems barrel scrapings. Sonic Youth, after presaging and then riding the grunge wave, basically abandoned the eternal evil teen thing and began to make some of the most beautiful adult rock ever: Experimental Jet SetA Thousand Leaves,NYC Ghosts and Flowers. I’m not so sure about the new one, Murray Street. But this was music no one anticipated and many young and old failed to get.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Steve Farneth
    > >Date: Thursday, July 11, 2002 11:51 AM

    Have you had a chance to listen to the new Springsteen recordings yet? What do you think? Is this going to be a great, elaborately arranged rock album worthy of the ghosts he’s asking us to dance with or will it be self-conscious and written entirely in metaphor?

    I got invited to some listening sessions and tried to make one but couldn’t. “Elaborately arranged” is never a big plus by me, not even with six pieces, so I hope they’re not.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Chuck Tahirali
    > >Date: Friday, July 12, 2002 12:34 PM

    Having just read the pieces written by RJ Smith and Simon Frith for Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough, it is interesting to note the contrast between Mr. Frith’s apparently hard-won lesson (“As an editor Christgau taught me that self-expression is not a matter of writing what comes into your head but working and working on words until they say what you want them to mean”) and Mr. Smith’s pointed remembrances of the editor’s candor and spontaneity (“Bob Christgau doesn’t think the way other people do; he doesn’t filter his thoughts like most folks”).

    I find myself wondering: Which approach, if either, predominates when you create your capsule music reviews? What is the ratio of CG reviews that are, more or less, spontaneously composed (that write themselves, so to speak) to those that inspire or require constant refining, re-working and re-writing? Is enthusiasm for the music the determining factor (one way or the other)?

    The answer to that is simple. In speech, I’m notoriously candid. As a writer, I’m notoriously slow. CG capsules are generally worked, worked, and reworked, which is one reason their syntax is so dense. On the other hand, I’m always trying to catch ideas or conceits or free associations on the fly as I listen, and have been known to drink a midnight beer to get one flowing.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Stan
    > >Date: Sunday, July 14, 2002 9:09 AM

    What are your top five concerts of all time?

    I’ll leave this concert question out of the list compendium and answer off the top of my head: Big Brother at Monterey 1967, Luamba Franco at Manhattan Center 1984 (1983?), supposedly a subpar show, Hüsker Dü late at Gildersleeves in front of about eight people in 82-83, Clash at Leeds 1977, and, oh hell, Coltrane joined by Eric Dolphy on the encore at the Village Gate I believe in September 1962. Those were great ones–there are dozens more. A real list would require a week of listmaking, consultation, and thought.

    What artist/group(s) do you never miss when they come to New York?

    There’s no one I absolutely don’t miss–stay home a weekend for, or miss a big deadline for. Very close, however, are my two favorite live bands: Youssou N’Dour et Super Etoile and Los Van Van.

    With MP3s becoming so dominant, and CDs stuffed with filler, do you soon see an end to the “album” era?

    I think the LP may die and may not–probably not, they’re too useful for the DIYers who are the future of music. Either way, I don’t think MP3’s will have much to do with it. Some other Net technology might.

    Happy belated birthday to the greatest of all time! Will Robert Christgau retire at 65? 70? And if so, are there any critics with somewhat similar tastes that you would recommend to us folks who love good music but won’t have the time to sift through it all?

    I have no expectation of retiring, because I’m not going to stop loving music or needing to earn a living–I’m not rich or even well off and never will be. If the LP does die that could change. So could a layoff–the newspaper business isn’t necessarily eternal either.

    I know you listen for 8-12 hours each day. That’s an incredible amount of time. So, which do you do first–pee, or put on some music?


    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Stanley Whyte
    > >Date: Sunday, July 14, 2002 5:01 PM

    Looking back on your Stranded essay 24 years later, if you were asked to do it again would you stand by your choice or would you pick a different album? Or does picking one single album to while away the years on a desert island make sense anymore?

    Picking one album to while away the time on a desert island never made sense. It was just an excuse to write a long essay about something you love and get paid for it. See my introduction to the Da Capo edition of Strandedfor further elucidation.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Andrew Lapointe
    > >Date: Monday, July 15, 2002 1:09 PM

    How did you acquire the title “Dean of American Rock Critics”? Do you think there is a hierarchy in rock criticism?

    As I’ve explained many many times, I appointed myself Dean of American Rock Critics when slightly soused at a 5th Dimension press party, I believe in early 1970. It seemed to push people’s buttons, so I stuck with it. There’s obviously no official hierarchy within rock criticism–only real academies can do that. But if you mean to ask whether I think some rock critics are better than others, you’re damn straight I do. Don’t you?

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Shy-but-fun-lovin
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 16, 2002 1:40 AM

    Is the ‘g’ in your name silent?


    Your prose has always been quite dense yet economical. Does it take a lot of time to get those sentences ‘just right’?


    Will you ever be able to live down a reasonably favorable (“Okay stuff”) Uriah Heep review you wrote back in ’73?

    Already have.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Vic S.
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 16, 2002 5:00 AM

    You’ve often said that Erotica is Madonna’s best album. Do you still feel this way, ten years later, and do you think it will undergo a reevaluation from the critical establishment since it was brushed aside in the controversy over her Sex book? Do you think Madonna’s legacy will include her musical achievements or only focus on her (over-discussed) “iconic value”?

    Yes, I still think Erotica is Madonna’s best album–not counting Immaculate Collection, of course. And yes, I think her music will at the very least stand alongside her iconic value historically–an issue discussed at some length in the Madonna essay in Grown Up All Wrong.

    Do you think you would like or appreciate Radiohead more if a female voice was singing the songs? If it was a Thelma Yorke instead of Thom?

    The right woman’s voice might make a difference, I suppose, though the portentous structures are no plus and I have a hard time imagining a woman writing those lyrics–unless it was Thalia Zedek or, to go back some, Nina Hagen, in which case I’ll take Thom, thanks.

    For such a world-music aficionado, I am surprised that to my knowledge you’ve never discussed the world’s most prolific artist, Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar (or even her sister, Asha Bhosle, who was the subject of that Cornershop song). What is your opinion of their voices and/or work, if you’ve heard any? And if you haven’t, if you can tell me your address, I’d be more than happy to send you some samplings!

    The only Bollywood album I’ve ever really cottoned to is the Luaka Bop Vijaya Anand, which I seem to have mislaid. I appreciate those sopranos in principle, but the reality is too much for me after three-four cuts

    In a hundred years, who do you think will still be remembered from the latter half of the 20th century in popular music? And what about in a thousand years (if our civilization is still around then)?

    In a hundred years the top candidate is clearly James Brown, but I believe many others will survive–it’s already been nearly 50 for the Berry-Presley-Penniman-Lewis-Charles-Diddley generation, and they’re not going anywhere. A thousand years is anyone’s guess. I hope there’s an inhabited planet in a thousand years, and that my great-greats-to-the-nth still have recorded sound. If so–James Brown! And also the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night.”

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: MXcR245Fmx
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 16, 2002 7:58 AM

    I’ve been rock-critical as a job for five years. The first four for a small weekly and then just over one year ago, the rock writer at the local daily offered me a job. As I had just dropped out of the philosophy program at my local university and was facing what seemed like an unholy mountain of student-loan debt, I accepted the higher paying gig. I also do a fairly small amount of work for a few scattered mags of varying repute.

    Now here’s the thing, the senior music writer (let’s call him Mentor, very sarcastically) is ten years older than me. I’m only 25, so he’s still relatively young. Over the last few months especially, he’s quite obviously been trying to make me irrelevant. Where we earlier had sort of traded off on assignments (it was never equal, but I was at least getting a small piece of the action), he now takes everything for himself, except for the geezers and the “nobodies.” For the most part, I do prefer talking to the less-than-famous and turning over strange rocks to discover something new underneath. But my Mentor has explicitly shut me out of major happenings where there has been lots of cheddar to go around. At first I thought he was trying to make sure I paid my dues (despite having slogged it out for nearly all of my adult life), and I could accept that. But it’s become quite obvious that he feels threatened by me and my zesty youth and is trying to bury me. The thing is, I have no desire to usurp him. I just want a fair shake.

    As someone who has aged gracefully in such a youth-obsessed industry, do you have any advice on how to confront my Mentor without him thinking I’m trying to push him into the Home for Aged Rock-Crits?

    Not knowing the quality of your work or the quality of his, I can’t answer that question. More than you seem to think depends on that. But I can say that there clearly aren’t enough gigs to go around, so that this kind of problem arises over and over. I’m glad you think I’ve aged gracefully, but I have not the slightest doubt (because every once in a while some younger colleague can’t resist telling me so) that my complete lack of interest in finding a more age-appropriate calling sticks in the craw of hundreds of people who think they could do my job as well as I do–or better, for finger-on-the-pulse reasons.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Tim Powis
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 16, 2002 8:03 AM

    How much do you need to know about music–the nuts & bolts stuff: harmony, chord changes, counterpoint & all that–to be a music critic?

    I don’t know shit about that stuff, and I’m a music critic. Long ago I thought knowing that stuff actually hurt criticism, and long ago it did–too often Jon Landau, a conspicuous offender, missed the forest for the trees. Now I’m very sorry I don’t know scads more than the dribs and drabs I’ve picked up over the years. When Alex Ross makes a harmonic argument for Radiohead, I wish I could tell exactly how unusual and exactly how relevant the details he adduces are. And of course, it’s a damn useful addition to one’s descriptive and analytic arsenal if you have the perspective not to take it too seriously–as Jon Pareles does, to choose just one example.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Mike Tapscott
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 16, 2002 10:55 AM

    I’ve been an admirer of yours for some time. One thing that’s puzzled me though, is your reaction to certain “alternative bands” like the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, or Wilco. I’ve wondered why you seem to have violent reactions to what they’re doing sometimes. Is it because you believe these groups are repeating things that have been done in the past? These seem to be some of the more innovative groups out there, and yet you still seem to prefer the Strokes or the Old 97s.

    What can I say? I think their “innovations” are pretty secondhand. Tricky and DJ Shadow and the Latin Playboys do the same kind of stuff much more daringly and totally. I didn’t think Mercury Rev or the Flaming Lips had much on the ball songwise before, and I don’t think they’re any great shakes at soundscaping either. If I sound vehement about it, that’s polemical. Everybody else is kvelling. If nobody else cared, I wouldn’t have to.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Chuck McCain
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 16, 2002 11:36 AM

    What was the first album and single you ever bought?

    Good question with an answer that would embarrass me if I got embarrassed about such things. First single: Doris Day, “Secret Love” (loved the B side, “Deadwood Stage”). First album: an Eydie Gorme record with “St. Louis Blues” on it that I either traded or sold to Mrs. Mulvihill across the street a few years later.

    If Greil Marcus decided to publish a new Stranded with all new essays from the surviving writers from the first, in addition to pieces from younger writers and people that didn’t get the chance the first time around, what album would you write about?

    Today, Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves (still reeling from that breakup piece in the Voice), or some Afropop compilation. Tomorrow, something else.

    How come no label has reissued One Kiss Leads To Another by Hackamore Brick? Being as big a Ramones fan as I am, I’d love to see if it is as good as Marcus said it was in Stranded.

    Don’t worry about it–it’s not as good as Greil Marcus says it is. Neither is the Lora Logic album.

    Who the hell was Jo-Jo Dancer anyway?

    I’m absolutely convinced it’s Charles Aaron, and I don’t admire him for lying about it. Then again, what he wrote sucked too.

    Any early calls on contenders for Pazz & Jop this year?

    I never speculate in print about Pazz & Jop for fear of skewing the results.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Yon
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 16, 2002 11:53 AM

    Could you please tell me if you still hate Abba, as you hated them in the ’70s when they were active? What do you think about your colleagues like John Rockwell, Joel Vance, Greg Shaw and others who thought Abba were brilliant?

    Abba still don’t ring my chimes, although their expertise is undeniable if you like that kind of thing and their cultural status lends them a certain charm–that Australian movie with the Abba soundtrack a few years back was terrific, and the music helped. I supposed the right comp might be some kind of Honorable Mention, but last time a best-of came through, I found myself getting bored pretty fast much beyond “Waterloo” and “Dancing Queen.” As for disagreeing critics, so what?

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: J. Bennett
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 16, 2002 2:33 PM

    Back in 1977 you wrote a Consumer Guide discussing the albums of 1967. Would you ever consider doing a similar column on 1968? Of particular interest would be your thoughts on The White Album and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, two notorious critics favorites conspicuously absent from the rock library lists in your Consumer Guide books.

    As I keep saying, lists are work, Jack. If somebody offered me enough money, I can imagine undertaking such freelance tasks. But I doubt they will, and I have plenty of other projects to keep me busy. I like The White Album, but it’s too McCartneyesque to be a favorite, and have never cottoned to Astral Weeks.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: steinar storlokken
    > >Date: Wednesday, July 17, 2002 10:30 AM

    In a recent interview you mentioned the Beatles among your top 5 artists. Is it pure listening pleasure, or cultural/historical significance that places them in front of, for example, the Clash and the Stones?

    I play the Beatles more than any other ’60s group to this day, and also more than the Clash or the Sex Pistols.

    You have been widely known to be a huge Stones and Clash fan. Has your regard for these bands fallen, and, if so, why?

    My regard for the Stones has fallen only insofar as I don’t find their vision as bracing as I did up through, say,Some Girls. I still love the Clash, though I don’t play them much because they don’t suit my lifestyle.

    Is the omission of the Basement Tapes in the Core Collection an error?

    The Basement Tapes certainly belongs in any core collection (although, actually, not all the Band cuts are all that).

    How does your favorite album of the ’90s rank among the greatest albums of all time?

    My favorite albums of the ’90s mean less culturally than those from previous decades, but more personally, because recent music is always one of the things that keeps me alive.

    Do you still think Double Dee and Steinski is an A+, or do you think it sounds dated in the wake of more sophisticated DJ-ism?

    I still love Double Dee and Steinski. I still love Buchanan and Goodman’s “The Flying Saucer,” too.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Carrie & Mark
    > >Date: Wednesday, July 17, 2002 1:44 PM

    Ever consider retirement? I sure hope not. I don’t know what I’d do without my monthly Consumer Guide.

    I’m currently helping to care for four elder relatives aged 84, 86, 91, and 94. This is a great lesson in mortality, and by these ages I assume I will have retired–people do well outlive their competence these days. On the other hand, my father, who held down three or more jobs when I was growing up, was forced into retirement by the 1975 New York City budget crisis and did OK. I sometimes chuckle ha ha ha to think how impossible that would be for me economically, another thing that’s changed these days–I envy my father that option. I’d be delighted to work less hard than I do, afford to travel more than I can, and write what I want even more precisely and variously than is permissible even at the Voice, which obviously grants me enormous autonomy. All that said, I don’t foresee chucking the Consumer Guide unless the album-music biz model breaks down more than I think likely.

    Has your daughter had an effect on your listening habits? Has she turned you on to anyone you might’ve missed?

    My daughter exposes me to music I wouldn’t ordinarily pay much mind to, but since her main passions are teenpop and salsa, neither a genre I love, there isn’t all that much direct influence. She certainly turned me on to the great Pink, however–as soon as the first video was on MTV. And she made me to go to my first Backstreet Boys concert, which had enjoyable repercussions even if they’ve now gone down the tubes.

    How much do you use the Internet as a music source? Not for downloading of course, but as a source of information, buying music, etc.

    The speakers on my computer haven’t worked for over a year. Anybody wanna come to my house and figure out what’s wrong, then give me a downloading tutorial that works for my fully unloaded, four-gig, Windows 98 computer? On the other hand, I frequently buy CDs on the Net. It’s clearly the easiest way to find obscure stuff–just pop the title into Google if the usual suspects don’t have it. And for information I use the Net constantly, many times a day. Google is one of my favorite modern conveniences. It beats spellcheck by a mile.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    Editor’s note: Several of the participants in this survey asked Robert some variation on one of the following three questions: 1) What are your favorite albums and singles of the ’90s? 2) What are your favorite albums of the ’60s? 3) What are your all-time favorite jazz records? Here, he tackles them all in one shot, along with a few other list-oriented queries. (Thanks to the following participants who asked for lists or were beaten to the punch with their questions: Scott Bassett, the Betatronix Gang, Charles Bromley, Joe Elsa, Kurt Jaeckel, Jim Ross, Vic S., John Tiglias, and Joe Yanosik.)

    I’m gonna deal with the rest of the list questions here, but first I’d like to say a few things about lists in general. I love lists, and that love is a source of my own peculiar cult status. It’s the reason I started Pazz & Jop, the reason I started the A lists in the back of the CG books. But let’s be clear–as Nick Hornby has made a mint proving (hey, give me some), lists are very boy. You should have seen me arranging my baseball cards, keeping Peter Tripp’s top 40, devising my pathetic top 10s of girls in Flushing High School at a time when I’d never had a single date (which, for the record, was all of my time in Flushing High School). This is why Greil Marcus attracts fans who write avant-garde theater pieces based on his critical fantasies and I get guys asking for my favorite albums by knuckleballers. Second, done properly, lists are work (as are grades, you think I just know about lots of records I don’t tell anyone about?). The reason I didn’t do a ’90s core library, much to the dismay of my editor and many reviewers, is that we were on a tight deadline and I wasn’t about to squeeze one out in less than the week I didn’t have, which is what the ’80s core library took. I’m not about to do that work here, either, except for some relistening on the ’90s and then ’60s top 10, which was fun. I love excuses to play records I love.


’90s albums

I will note, if you do not, that four of these albums put together previously uncompiled old music and one reconstitutes even more obscure thrift-store stuff. Only the Sonic Youth and Nirvana, plus maybe the heavily sampled Latin Playboys, are “new”/”progressive.” I will not generalize from these odd facts until I think about them for a few months, however, and would urge a similar caution on the part of my readers.

  • Guitar Paradise of East Africa (Earthworks)
  • Latin Playboys (Slash/Warner Bros.)
  • Sonic Youth: A Thousand Leaves (DGC)
  • Elmore James: The Sky Is Crying: The History of Elmore James (Rhino)
  • The Music in My Head (Stern’s Africa)
  • DJ Shadow: Endtroducing . . . DJ Shadow (Mo’ Wax/FFRR)
  • Nirvana: Nevermind (DGC)
  • Tom Zé: Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zétom (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)
  • Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)
  • Iris DeMent: My Life (Warner Bros.)Didn’t make the cut, that doesn’t mean others wouldn’t come in higher if I made a project out of this:
  • Arto Lindsay: Mundo Civilizado (Bar/None)
  • Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam)
  • Tricky: Maxinquaye (Island)
  • Fluffy: Black Eye (The Enclave)
  • The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (Merge)
  • Oruj Guvenc & Tumata: Ocean of Remembrance (Interworld)


’90s singles

  • Fatboy Slim: “The Rockafeller Skank” (Astralwerks)
  • Backstreet Boys: “I Want It That Way” (Jive)
  • Public Enemy: “Welcome to the Terrordome” (Def Jam)
  • Eminem: “My Name Is” (Aftermath/Interscope)
  • B-Rock & the Bizz: “MyBabyDaddy” (LaFace)
  • Boogie Down Productions: “Love’s Gonna Getcha (Material Love)” (Jive)
  • L.L. Cool J: “Around the Way Girl” (Def Jam/Columbia)
  • Los Del Rio: “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” (RCA)
  • FU-Schnickens: “Sum Dum Munkey” (Jive)
  • John Prine: “In Spite of Ourselves” (Oh Boy)Second 10
  • Kris Kross: “Jump” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)
  • Cher: “Believe” (Warner Bros.)
  • Fugees: “Fugee La La” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)
  • Beck: “Loser” (DGC)
  • Geto Boys: “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” (Rap-a-Lot)
  • Coolio: “Gangsta’s Paradise” (Tommy Boy)
  • Puff Daddy & the Family: “I’ll Be Missing You” (Bad Boy)
  • R.E.M.: “Losing My Religion” (Warner Bros.)
  • MC Hammer: “U Can’t Touch This” (Capitol)
  • MC Lyte: “Ruffneck” (First Priority)


Box sets

Fuck box sets. Of course I have a lot of boxes, they come in the mail, but unless they come in yours why should you? They’re for completists, collectors, scholars, not living music fans, and in general I suggest buying individual CDs or, often with the good guys, two-disc sets. My few active favorites will be no surprise because most are in the ’90s Consumer Guide book: James Brown’s Star Time, Louis Armstrong’s Portrait of the Artist, Janis Joplin’sJanis, the reggae comp Tougher Than Tough, Hip-O’s The Funk Box, The Essential Johnny Cash is about the right size, and maybe Rhino’s first doo wop box, though even there there’s a lot to be said for the individual CD route. I once wrote something nice about the B.B. King but never play it because I’ve got single CDs. The Etta James I crack occasionally. I like the cornball Armstrong triple MCA put out. And hey, I once bought the Richard Pryor as a present for my sister’s family. Gave them Star Time, too. And at least three times I’ve purchased the Armstrong as a wedding or birthday present. Voting with your wallet, always a good test.


Jazz albums

Note how many of my jazz selections date to the late ’50s and early ’60s, when jazz was what I listened to:

  • Thelonious Monk: Misterioso (live at the Five Spot, Johnny Griffin’s six-minute solo on “In Walked Bud” has been just about my favorite “moment” in music since I was 18, have never connected deeply to a single other thing he’s done).
  • Duke Ellington: Flaming Youth (’20s stuff, way out of print on RCA’s Vintage imprint, played it to death in the ’70s, one-disc Decca best CD substitute I know but not as good).
  • Any decent Charlie Parker Dial comp.
  • Louis Armstrong’s Portrait of the Artist.
  • Louis Armstrong’s 16 Most Requested Songs if that counts (really a pop record I suppose).
  • Miles Davis: Kind of Blue(Why fucking not?)
  • Miles Davis: Jack Johnson (His best electric record.)
  • Ornette Coleman: Of Human Feeling (Change of the Century my favorite classic.)
  • Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners
  • Sonny Rollins: Silver CityI play recent CD comps on Coltrane, Coleman, Monk, Fitzgerald. Play Holiday less because she’s so bleak but love her as much. I’m still exploring the Ken Burns Jazz comps.


Most “listenable” albums

Let it be said that when I play music for pleasure, it’s usually recent music. I love The Immortal Otis Redding and doubt I’ve heard it three times in the past five years. Also, I almost never listen for pleasure when I’m alone. Carola my love (and to a lesser extent Nina), welcome aboard. This one will be even more off-the-cuff than the other lists herein, and for sanity’s sake it’ll be in alphabetical order.

  • Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia)
  • Aretha Franklin: Spirit in the Dark (Atlantic)
  • Al Green: Call Me (Hi)
  • Guitar Paradise of East Africa (Earthworks)
  • Latin Playboys (Slash/Warner Bros.)
  • The Marvelettes’ Greatest Hits (Tamla) (MCA cheapo CD omits “Twistin’ Postman,” boo.)
  • Thelonious Monk: Misterioso (Riverside)
  • Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM)
  • Sonic Youth: A Thousand Leaves (DGC)
  • Dusty Springfield: Dusty in Memphis (Atlantic)
  • Tom Zé: Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)


’60s albums

(In order, but with no artist repetitions and no jazz, that would be too hard, and by the way, I paid cash money for numbers one, three, four, and ten.)

  • The Beatles’ Second Album (Capitol)
  • The Velvet Underground (Verve)
  • The Shirelles’ Greatest Hits (Scepter)
  • The Rolling Stones: Aftermath (or maybe Let It Bleed) (London)
  • Dusty Springfield: Dusty in Memphis (Atlantic)
  • Otis Redding: The Immortal Otis Redding (Atco)
  • The Beach Boys: Wild Honey (Capitol)
  • Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia)
  • The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace of Sin (A&M)
  • The Marvelettes’ Greatest Hits (Tamla)


Five favorite albums by knuckleballers:

  • Michael Hurley/Unholy Modal Rounders/Jeffery Frederick & the Clamtones: Have Moicy! (Rounder)
  • The Insect Trust: Hoboken Saturday Night (Atco)
  • Ian Dury: Juke Box Dury (Stiff)
  • DeBarge: In a Special Way (Gordy)
  • Arto Lindsay: Mundo Civilizado (Bar/None)


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