Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Adventures of the Dean of Long Island Rock Critics

The last thing I did before setting the police lock was to turn off the amplifier and Ellen McIlwaine. I drove up Avenue C to the tunnel and out the Long Island Expressway, threading my way past my parents' old exit and my parents' new exit to Port Washington. A lot of kids were leaving a Main Street movie called Tales From the Crypt as if it were the only show in town. Out at the shopping center a decidedly nonpsychedelic orange-and-black poster had fallen from its perch. The big letters said: "Coliseum Ent./ Wally Rubin/ Sands Point Theater/ Thurs. Mar. 30/ Country Joe McDonald/ Lisa Palattella/ Clean Living." The little letters said: "Tickets $6.00 and $4.50."

I missed Lisa Palattella, which Doug Ehrlich, of Coliseum Ent., assures me I ought to regret. Well, I have my own regrets. Clean Living--I should have figured from the name--turned out to be one of those ubiquitous pastoral folkie-rockie groups that turns wine into water, the kind of band that makes me want to scream just so somebody does. They interspersed their own dilute ditties with the likes of "Not Fade Away" and "Rock and Roll Music." Even "Rock and Roll Music" sounded washed out.

If there were 150 patrons in the 600-capacity theater, some of them were hiding under the seats, though I can't imagine what from. The concept behind bands like Clean Living is that funky and quaint are the same thing. This is a fallacy. Rock and roll is a continuum running from hostility to fun, with sexuality (and love) synthesizing busily in the middle. It is crass and miraculous. Folkie-rockie musicians have learned to see past the crassness, but they can't find it in themselves to affirm it, which is where the miracle comes in. So they distend the fun to very unsexy proportions, cheered on by audiences as uncomfortable with hostility as the musicians themselves--generally audiences that can afford six bucks and four-fifty for a dubious star attraction and two unknowns.

The median age of this audience was about fourteen, a little young for folkie-rockie--in fact, barely old enough to have been conceived amid the aggressive good cheer of Chuck Berry and "Rock and Roll Music." They dug that anyway, of course, and they got off on the Coasters' "Young Blood"--probably knew it from Leon Russell's Bangla-Desh version, and the drummer did sing a spirited bass part--but in general they acted like bored pubescents with too much spending cash. Doug Ehrlich reports that the more sophisticated late-show audience got it on with Clean Living. Doug Ehrlich is seventeen. So was the late-show audience.

Country Joe, one of those prescient folk musicians who formed rock bands back in the early days of hippie, now plays solo with an acoustic guitar. He expresses a lot of politico aggression, much too tough-minded for folkie-rockie, and he opens his act with a hand-clapping song called "Entertainment Is My Business." Country Joe probably cleared two grand for the night's work, about what the Coliseum lost, but if he'd had to transport musicians and equipment from San Francisco, he would hardly have broken even. He is rumored to be putting together a new band.

Country Joe is my age and has a head something like mine--his milieu is Berkeley, an outpost of Manhattan, rather than Marin County, an outpost of Nirvana--and I haven't put on one of his records for pleasure in years. At the shopping center he was very good, however, a pro who succeeded in entertaining an audience whose experience had little to do with his new women's-liberation consciousness. Lucky for them--Country Joe is writing songs about the family that can't be reprinted in a family newspaper. "Some of you are probably too young for this," he said, "but you've been watching your parents all your lives, right?" The kids cheered.

After the show I talked briefly to Country Joe--he corrected my pronunciation of "macho," a task ordinarily performed by women--and then drove in to hear Stevie Wonder at the Bitter End. Stevie Wonder's exuberance transcends taste; at the age of twenty-one he has been making hit records for nine years. When most Motown artists were imitating Dawn Dolls, he was singing "Blowin' in the Wind"--it must have been his age--and he recently showed up unannounced at the Free John Sinclair benefit. He had transported a twelve-piece band to the Bitter End, which was packed with an interracial audience that dug both his reprised hits and his unprecedented synthesizer improvisations. So did I. After the show ended, I drove to Slug's, in the far east, near home, where Larry Coryell ripped my brain out with his guitar.

When I got home, I put on two Stevie Wonder records. A woman I love called for the first time in six weeks at around 3:30, and I put on Ellen McIlwaine and Lesley Gore as we rapped down our traumas. Dominique had seen Black Sabbath the night before. Pure adolescent hostility, I told her. She told me she dug it. At around five I began work on this piece, playing side twos from my nondescript pile very low on mono as I worked. The first four--Uncle Jim's Music, Boondoggle and Balderdash, Larry McNeely, and Gary St. Clair--all sounded folkie-rockie to me. They went on the discard pile. In the Times the next day Don Heckman praised Stevie Wonder because his music approximated jazz. That's the way he always judges things. He must be thirty-six or something. I will be thirty in nine days.

Newsday, Apr. 1972
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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