Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Pioneer Days

It's a little silly for me to do the full-disclosure tap dance around the books at hand. I'm quoted ten times in Kevin Avery's Paul Nelson biography-collection-tribute, Everything Is an Afterthought, and thanked prominently in the acknowledgments. Paul and I were friends in the '70s, although he had many closer ones, and I edited a few of the pieces Avery chose; Paul helped me move into the apartment where I'm writing this and was directly responsible for the recording career of my beloved New York Dolls. And with Ellen Willis I have no "objectivity" whatsoever--we were a couple from 1966 to 1969, and, except for my wife, no one has influenced me more. Six years younger than Nelson, Willis died four months after him in 2006, when she was only 64. At a memorial colloquium the next year, I called for a collection of the rock criticism she'd written decades before, and I meant all of it. Overseen by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, Out of the Vinyl Deeps is pretty much the omnibus I imagined. I blurbed it. I'm in the damn video.

I believed Willis was a better critic than Nelson before I read these books, and for whatever my objectivity is worth, I still do. But I believed even more that both collections deserved to exist before their authors attracted attention by dying. From where I sit inside the whale, '70s rockmags and alternaweeklies generated a lost trove of American criticism. With Willis and Nelson added to the half dozen other names now compiled one way or another--Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Robert Palmer, Dave Marsh, Jon Landau, and myself--the early record is in a sense complete. The Village Voice, Creem, and Rolling Stone archives could yield multi-author miscellanies that document the democratic babble of that brief era with the diversity it deserves. But Willis and Nelson cultivated distinct voices that merit consideration on their own terms--very similar in their passion for lucidity, very dissimilar in their ideological impetus.

Re-encountering these voices in book form years later differs radically from meeting them in their journalistic moment. So I should note that although I originally edited parts of both books, I'd never read most of either. Willis and I split up in late 1969, and she was the one with the New Yorker subscription, so I picked up on her column rarely after that. (If this seems weird, I'm sorry--I did really prefer both Creem, which came free, and The Nation, which was cheaper.) Nelson's reviews I checked out regularly in Rolling Stone, but not his profiles nor, obviously, the previously unpublished work Avery has unearthed. Moreover, half of Everything Is an Afterthought is a biography Avery heroically assembled from years of interviews with Nelson's friends and boxes of interview tapes Nelson left behind.

Both books are better than you might figure. With Willis, the red flag is that it comprises all of her published rock criticism, and completist omnibuses are not generally the way to do collections--some pieces always work better than others and some get old quick. Yet despite a few sequencing glitches and a handful of outright failures, Out of the Vinyl Deeps reads strong start to finish, its more casual concert reviews humanizing the focused intellect Willis soon trained exclusively on her sex-positive vision of left feminism and feminist leftism. With Nelson, the wild card was Avery, an unknown from Utah whose national track record starts here. But he's done inspired, diligent work. Constructed from a greater proportion of direct quotes than is normally deemed proper, the biography is doubly gripping as a result: as Avery sadly and scrupulously establishes, Nelson spent the last two decades of his life as a blocked, depressive loner, so the warm affection and unblinking realism of admirers from Jackson Browne to his boss at the video store says worlds for his inner worth. And though the critical analyses that triggered this admiration shone less brightly than I'd hoped, the narrative writing I'd put less stock in compensated.

Willis's book, out since May, has been widely and enthusiastically reviewed, which is gratifying even if the collective amazement that this woman once wrote among us speaks poorly of how well kids today do their homework. Pub date on the Nelson is November 18th, eight weeks after its astonishingly thorough Avery-edited companion Conversations with Clint: Paul Nelson's Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood, so reviews are sparse as I write. But my guess is that Nelson will finish second in this race, and would have even if Willis's feminist cred didn't give her such a head start.

Nothing illustrates Nelson's cult status more impressively than the fact that Jonathan Lethem, whose foreword to Conversations with Clint describes his tour as the master's cinematic apprentice, based the central character in Chronic City on Nelson. But in the end, Nelson's critical vision, especially as regards music, also has a cultish quality. An escapee from the laced-tight confines of a small Minnesota town, Nelson maintained a longer career in journalism and the music business than you'd predict for such a screwed-up guy. A neurotically painstaking writer who wasted years on unfinished articles, books, and screenplays, he was also a hopeless romantic silently tormented by both guilt (over his split with his high school sweetheart and their son) and rejection (by the other woman, a beguiling folksinger who told Avery: "He wasn't a complete person. You know, Paul's interests really were in three areas: music, books, and movies"). But none of this negates how readily artists took to his laconically encyclopedic cool, or how awestruck colleagues were by his high-principled, dryly humorous, reference-dropping style.

"There was a gentleness and compassion in everything that he did," says Nelson's great bulwark, critic-turned-screenwriter Jay Cocks. "I think it was unique in rock writing, that kind of compassion." Compassion is there if you look for it, and you can see its wellsprings in a biography that helps explain Nelson's weakness for sensitive cad Jackson Browne. But up on the surface is his never-ending quest for the kind of rugged yet thoughtful American hero who came to the fore as Ford and Hawks, Chandler and Macdonald were adjudged classic. Nelson wasn't insensible to music per se--as his life ran down, there were long, long spells when he obsessed on Chet Baker and later Ralph Stanley. But from Minneapolis scavenger Bob Dylan to Dolls mastermind David Johansen and beyond, all his rock heroes were rock poets, and all were white men. The only female Avery highlights is Patti Smith, via Nelson's pan of her "pointlessly pregnant" Horses. Even worse was Muhammad Ali fanatic Nelson's utter indifference to African-American music--I once assigned him a Millie Jackson album on the optimistic theory that she was a hell of a lyricist, but to no avail. A generous man, R&B adept Lethem diagnoses this vast lacuna as an "autism."

Like most rugged individualists, Nelson was staunchly apolitical, a tendency accentuated by his early immersion in the folk movement and his tour as managing editor of Sing Out! under Irwin Silber, whose commitment to socialist realism survived his 1955 departure from the Communist Party proper. This didn't distance him as much as you might think from Willis, who like most radical feminists was staunchly political, but also an individualist, plenty tough if not literally rugged. Willis couldn't stand Silber's aesthetic, either. His sober moralism seemed to her a repressive, objectively counter-revolutionary burden just waiting to be swept away by a hedonistic-libertarian analysis. That she should find herself getting paid to develop that analysis for a ruling-class outlet of notorious gentility exemplified the pop contradictions it was her mission to resolve. Whether the gig made her, as her New Yorker heir Sasha Frere-Jones calculates, the most widely read of America's few working rock critics depends on how many subscribers actually perused "Rock, Etc." The really big deal was that out of nowhere, this obscure 26-year-old had a beat.

The dealmaker was one long, painstakingly turned essay published first in (I kid you not) Commentary, and then in the short-lived weekend-hippie slick Cheetah. Its subject was Bob Dylan, its focus his image(s), and it remains one of the richest things ever written about the artist or the '60s, even though it was formulated without benefit of historical perspective. "Dylan" leads Out of the Vinyl Deeps, as it did Willis's 1981 collection, Beginning to See the Light, and then come every "Rock, Etc." column she ever published--47 of them, dated 1968 to 1975, with a falloff during her 1969-70 stint running an antiwar GI coffeehouse in Colorado.

There's been a lot of kerfuffle over how personal, casual, and fannish these columns seem. But in fact the first-person anecdotal was a standard ploy in early rock criticism--Willis just knew how to make it signify. The laid-back Colorado reflection "Stranger in a Strange Land," for instance, is every bit as thought through as it is peaced out, a rigorous examination of the limits of rigor. Even at her most contemplative, Willis is in command of something she valued more than tone: ideas.

Because Willis was writing so early, her concepts are sometimes crude and her facts under-researched. Because she devoted so much attention to icons long since analyzed down to the molecules, not all her critical insights come as revelations. Still, read her on Randy Newman or Black Sabbath or Blood on the Tracks, to name just three, and find stuff that never occurred to you. Ponder her notes on Bette Midler's camp and rethink your views on interpretation. And tucked away in the back is her fourth New Yorker column, the audaciously theoretical "The Star, the Sound, and the Scene," a post-communist manifesto that celebrates celebrity, praises mass culture, and puts virtuosity in its place. I was right to want it all. Having never read most of this book before, I've now read most of it twice, and I'm not done yet.

Willis was a pioneer, feeling her way through the underbrush like all of us who treasured '60s notions of freedom. She was perceptive enough to call out utopian nostalgia as it arose. But she writes a whole hell of a lot about the usual suspects: Dylan, Stones, Beatles, Who, and Creedence (whom she considered dance music). Inconveniently for a radical feminist, all are men. Nevertheless, she didn't miss many major women artists, either--Grace Slick I guess, Raitt and/or Ronstadt, and Gladys Knight, whom she name-checked but never tackled. Knight's absence is especially unfortunate, because beyond an imaginative Stevie Wonder report and a halting Aretha Franklin review, too much crucial black music does get missed. More perplexing omissions than the generally neglected James Brown are failed hippie Sly Stone and politico-sexual obsessive Marvin Gaye, and I could go on (AlGreenAlGreenAlGreen). Still, compared to Nelson she was a polymath.

Nelson was a pioneer, too--I wish Avery had made room for some work from Little Sandy Review, the folk journal Nelson co-founded in 1960, which I don't know (his best-remembered folk piece is his gantlet-throwing Dylan-at-Newport defense for Sing Out!).But between 1974 and 1982, when he and Rolling Stone underwent a bitter divorce, Nelson had the run of the ranch. It's to his immense credit that he recognized the literary cowboy under David Johansen's glam, and certainly his tastes ranged wider than his big pieces suggest. But those tastes were very narrow for a major critic. That's why I came away less taken with his reviews than with his magnificent Warren Zevon profile and Clint Eastwood interviews, which would mean far less without their critical underpinnings. As I told Avery, Nelson "liked what he liked." Too bad his Neil Young book was never written and his Rod Stewart book was passed off to Lester Bangs.

Different as they were, Willis and Nelson shared two things. One was that they prized clarity. Willis strove for an elevated plainstyle that at its most finished--best exemplified not by her columns but by ambitiously worked essays like "Dylan," her Velvet Underground exegesis for Greil Marcus's 1979 Stranded, and the title piece of Beginning to See the Light--made abstractions seem part of the natural world. Nelson was more poetic, endlessly pursuing rhythm and overtone. But neither was much for describing physical facts, and as a result neither much conveyed how music sounded--a common enough challenge that rock criticism's pioneers defeated in their own ways as they stuck at it. This brings us to the second thing Willis and Nelson shared. They didn't stick at it.

About sticking at it I am even less objective than I am about my old companions Ellen and Paul. I am rock criticism's champion lifer, churning out 200 record briefs a year as if I still thought it was fun, which I do. But I can say this much. Although both turned out some of their best rock criticism after they retired--in Nelson's case an account of his five-year tour at Mercury Records written in the mid '90s--I suspect that their failure to get to the nub of music per se helps us understand why they quit.

Willis's partisans aver that she got out while the getting was good, while Nelson's mourn the loss of his genius. I believe the opposite. Nelson was right to get out. Rock's hero quest has been a dead end since circa 1980--there's Springsteen, that's one, and then there's, well, Bono, who it's impossible to imagine Nelson taking seriously for a host of reasons good and bad. But I think Willis would have been better off staying. She was a powerful thinker, and though she never wrote enough she almost always wrote well when she did. But as someone who spent 15 years extricating himself from her politics and is so glad he did, I say continued attention to her beat would have changed those politics for the better, sensitizing her to mass pleasures, countercultural anxieties, class antagonisms, and racial contradictions she lost touch with. Mere attention wouldn't have done it, though--she would have had to enjoy it. And it's my guess that for writers as gifted as Willis and Nelson never to have found language to describe music means that in the end they didn't enjoy music for all it's worth. When Ellen and I were feeling our way through the music of the '60s, we scoffed at such notions. But we were wrong.

Barnes & Noble Review, November 21, 2011