Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Two Nights at the Westbury Music Fair

1. Tom Jones

There were seven women in Section A, Row F, behind us, and the woman with the aisle seat, right next to where his burly helpers would hustle him on and off the round stage, had earned her prize appropriately, with middle-class virtues. The very night she had received her Inner Circle bulletin, in January, she had ordered her tickets for Tom Jones's opening night at the Westbury Music Fair. I had my seat by press privilege, and my mother, who accompanied me, had done nothing more strenuous than skip her church group to do so. She was acting very cool about it.

My mother is a sane, intelligent, demure woman with little interest in popular music, but as we eavesdropped on the women behind us, reminiscing about Elvis Presley and complaining about the plethora of uniformed guards, she got worried.

"I know this guy is going to get to me. I'm putting up a big front, but I know. I saw Enzo Stuarti and before it was over I was falling all over him, and you know what he is. It's the ambience."

She was right, but she has nothing to worry about--she succumbed to talent. Jones is very good at what he does. He has one of the best voices in popular music--not one of your failed opera baritones, but a rich, husky ballad instrument with heavy black and country influences and that essential romantic Welsh fillip--and he knows how to use it. Not many singers could do such a wide variety of top-forty material--from Wilson Pickett to Al Green, from Frank Sinatra to Three Dog Night--so credibly. Only once, on "Till," did he indulge in the overdramatizing most similar performers feel is obligatory.

Of course, the seven women behind us were not there for a rock and roll appreciation course. They were there for, you know, sex, and that is more problematic--it is considered gauche, somehow, for a woman in her thirties to exhibit her libido. Not that the crowd thought so. Women from eleven to sixty paraded at Tom's whim to the stage to present their love offerings--stuffed animals and champagne and a house key or two. They wiped the sweat form his face and his body and kept the handkerchiefs as souvenirs. And they kissed him, to the glee of their less fortunate sisters. Tongue kisses received especially enthusiastic applause. Their husbands, those who were there--women outnumbered men about four to one--appeared indulgent. It was like New Year's Eve--one tongue kiss never ruined a marriage. Sex at a distance. Nothing like it for letting off steam.

I know I'm not a thirty-six-year-old housewife, but I reserve the right to be a little saddened and a little confused by all of this. Jones is a fine singer, but even my mother noticed that he's an awkward, rather overstated dancer. He dances a lot more surely than I do, but then, he gets paid for it, and if Wilson Pickett were to swivel his hips that way, he's be laughed off the stage of the Apollo. Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger also move a lot better than Jones, and movement is what all this sex is about, right?

Nobody at Westbury is complaining. Jones sold out three thousand seats for six nights as soon as the first ad appeared. That doesn't make him quite the attraction the hype claims--many rock acts sell at least as well just as fast, and Presley, for example, would do a lot better if he wanted the work--but it's impressive enough, and it ought to be remembered that Jones's fans have the money (and the inclination) to go to places like Las Vegas. That's obviously the kind of success Jones wants, and he earns it likably enough. He is at least as indulgent of his fans as their husbands are.

All in all, not a bad evening. My mother and I have a date to see Engelbert Humperdinck when he comes around.

Newsday, Apr. 1972

2. Engelbert Humperdinck

My mother and I returned to the Westbury Music Fair to see Engelbert Humperdinck last night. The truism about Jones and Humperdinck, who are both managed by a smart man named Gordon Mills, is that they project mutually exclusive images: the rough-hewn, sexy rocker and the handsome, romantic balladeer. Since I think of my mother as sentimental, I thought she might prefer Humperdinck, but she didn't. Neither did I.

I am a rock and roll person, and although I assume Humperdinck is good at what he does, there's no way I'll ever like it. I think the smooth, melodramatic pop style is as false as the fantasy lyrics of "To the Ends of the Earth" and "Through Spanish Eyes." Moreover, it tends to undermine whatever emotional possibilities survive the structure and melody of more realistic material, such as Humperdinck's big one, "Release Me." Musically, the evening was a loss for me before it began.

Sometimes, though, a charismatic performer overwhelms your prejudices, so that you marvel at the sheer fact of his presence at the same time you deplore it. Last night, however, even my low expectations were betrayed. I expected that Humperdinck would at least act comfortable with his own sexual appeal. Instead, he felt compelled to embellish it with naughty jokes ("If you have a virus, it gets you in the place you use most--it got me in the throat second") and endearing mannerisms ("Cease!" or "That's so cute!"). As my mother put it: "What seemed to be so natural with Tom Jones with this guy is so contrived. He's working so hard at it."

His audience was, of course, mostly female, a little older and a little less swinging than the Jones crowd. They didn't grab as much or scream as much or come on as much, but then if they dig Humperdinck's dreamy but somewhat sedate illusion, that probably isn't their style. They doubtless prefer to simply bask in the experience.

For me, the most moving moments in the show were provided by the fans. A woman in a black beehive next to me--a squatter who eventually was forced to relinquish her sixth-row seat--clapped wildly throughout the first two songs, almost like a little girl, while her blond friend simply sat there, close to tears. I was especially impressed by a woman named Ingrid who was elected by Humperdinck to sit on the stage during his rendition of "Sugar Sugar." She did a marvelous siren act, beckoning him with a crooked finger and then attempting (unsuccessfully, I'm afraid) to cool it a little when he approached.

The fantasies that performers like Humperdinck cater to are unreal, but there's something beautiful about them. How wonderful that the human spirit should preserve its utopian impulses, its longing for some sort of serene romantic perfection, even if the image around which these impulses organize themselves is a very silly and inflated man. I don't suppose Humperdinck's fans are going to feel very flattered when I say they're too good for him. But that's what I think.

Newsday, May 1972
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


Barbra Streisand, Featuring Mary Hopkin Carole King