Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Sonic Youth
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Royal Trux
Royal Trux

An edited transcript of a conversation between Robert Christgau, Dean of American Rock Critics; Gerard Cosloy, who runs Homestead Records and publishes Conflict; and SPIN editor Joe Levy.

Joe Levy: If these records share anything, itís that theyíre marginal.

Gerard Cosloy: Explain what you mean by marginal.

Robert Christgau: Theyíre not pop records, Gerard.

CG: And not being a pop record makes it marginal? Iím just curious.

RC: Yeah, by definition, it makes it marginal--on the margins of popular culture. In what sense arenít they marginal?

CG: In the impact they can have on the individual. Rarely do I concern myself, when I listen to any of these records, what relation they bear to each other or what ten or 1,000 other people are going to get out of it, because I donít live with those people.

RC: Well, that seems like an extremely--and I hate to use this Lester Bangs word, but Iím afraid itís the one that comes to mind--solipsistic view of the world. In fact, there are other people, and you are connected to them, and to me one of the crucial things about popular music--especially as opposed to art music and avant-garde music--is those connections. So, you can talk about the marginality of these records in fairly accurate ways. Sonic Youth are less marginal, at this point, because they have a larger audience and a more accessible format. And I think one of the things it has to do with is a conscious, deliberate relationship to the marketplace. Which, in the case of Sonic Youth, has been extremely good for their music. I canít think of any band of the past five years thatís "sold out" to better effect than Sonic Youth. Theyíre more interested in writing tunes, theyíre readier to work with relatively tight and traditional constructions, song structures. And it so happens--much to my surprise, because I always thought they were an interesting band with a good sound who were incredibly overrated by their cult--they really turned out to be good at this. So that their groove, which was always a problem for me, is now a virtue. Given the melodies and the song structure, suddenly this kind of mechanical and monolithic groove has a different twist to it. My problem is that I donít find that thereís much room for formal innovation in this music anymore. The innovations people come up with are extremely small, personal, idiosyncratic, and what that means is that they have to hit you where you live or you can live without them. That wasnít true of, say, Human Switchboard, to take one example from six years ago. They had a lot of places to go.

GC: I think if you look at the climate back then, yeah, I would agree with that. On the other hand, I still donít mind. Because this music is hitting me right where I live. I think there are people who really are the real innovators right now, very often without ever trying to be. Some of those people have yet to make records. Costes and Suckdog, for example. Sheís from New Hampshire and heís from France. They sing over tapes that theyíve made together, or stuff that theyíve taped off the radio, generally really horrible AM radio sludge, whatever they could find. And they put together their own 30-minute rock operas, usually separately, sometimes together. Lisaís like 19 years ago, her face is all chopped up, something really bad happened to her at a young age; sheís very strange--it seems as though sheís eight or nine years old and sheís never trying to come off that way. Costes, on the other hand, heís in his thirties, and his command of the English language is not that strong. The only words he really seems to have gotten the hang of so far are words for body parts. He likes to use those words very often. He likes to talk about the parts of the body, and what heís about to do with them. Costes doesnít see himself as part of any sort of rock underground, he actually believes that he is going to be the next Pet Shop Boys, the next Morrissey, the next Elton John, the next Sting. Thatís the stuff that heíd listen to. And none of those things are going to happen, not in his wildest dreams, but the two of them together are really great, theyíre sort of made for each other. They make a very nice couple. Iíve never heard anything in rockíníroll that sounds like them. They might make better theater than good music.

RC: Why should anything youíve said make me want to see this group?

GC: Iím not necessarily trying to make anybody go see them or buy their tapes, I mean itís nice if people do, and if they like it, thatís even better, but Iíll still be able to listen to them.

JL: So there is a point to that solipsism line. This stuff may be fine when youíre home listening to it, but if itís driven to any will communicate, it might be better. Thatís what makes the Sonic Youth record so good.

CG: Iím not sure Iíd agree with that. Iím also not sure Iíd agree itís the best record Sonic Youthís ever made. I like the Royal Trux record better than the Sonic Youth record. Sonic Youth--theyíre at a point right now where they write really great rock songs that for one reason or another donít really take me to another place. When I listen to their songs, I could be watching them at the Ritz or Madison Square Garden but they remind me of a rock band. I donít blame them for that, but at this particular moment the Royal Trux record is much harder for me to figure out. The idea of that band: people who are barely able to conduct daily order of affairs, whether itís buying a newspaper or picking up the telephone, trying to be a rock band on stage, I find that really exciting. That doesnít mean that theyíre talented or that theyíre good or they have something to say for a lot of people. But, you know, thatís not what Iím listening for.

RC: Youíre listening to be taken to another place, because theyíre really innovative, or because theyíre really something that you find exciting. Those are the three possible values I pick up from what youíre saying.

GC: Okay, theyíre not that innovative. I mean theyíre playing guitars, bass, and drums. Theyíre trying to write songs, even though they havenít managed yet. Theyíre not the most innovative group in the world. But I think if one person likes it, itís valid enough to exist. I think itís safe to say that Iím probably not as discriminating as you are in what I listen to, but we havenít talked about records that you might think are particularly special that I might find to be anywhere from average to downright awful. The only conclusion I can come to is that for one reason or another thereís a specific genre that I have more sympathy for than I have for something else. I actually donít mind that. I also donít believe in making excuses for whatís happened. I would rather see someone err on the side of being too discriminating than making apologies for something merely because it exists: "Someoneís created this, they went to a lot of effort, and therefore itís valid." I donít believe that for a minute.

RC: But I got to tell you it seems to me that in fact thatís how the independent scene keeps going--itís based on a lot of local loyalties and appreciation for what should happen to a scene at a certain moment in your life. Assuming you donít have a depression in this country--which is never something to discount--but assuming that thereís a little extra money floating around--because people are not making money doing this and if there wasnít some extra money floating around it wouldnít happen--I agree with you that as a phenomenon this sort of music is going to sustain itself for a long time. But whether it isnít going to become ever narrower and chomp even further up on its own tail, thatís not something Iím so sure about.

GC: I think that as long as people have imagination, something more far-reaching will come along.

RC: It isnít just a matter of peopleís individual imagination. You couch so much of this in terms of your individual response and the individual creativity of the people making the music--what I say is that all art, even arty-art, high art, which is really the kind of art youíre interested in, whether you like it or not, is dependent on a social context. And if the social context dries up, so does the art.

GC: I just think someoneís going to be calling it something else in five yearsí time. I donít believe that rockís vocabulary is finite. Maybe the bands that are there right now are not using whatís in that vocabulary to their full potential.

RC: I believe the musical vocabulary is finite and what characterizes certain vocabularies is not so much their amplitude as their staying power. Thatís the great things about blues changes--they have extraordinary attractiveness and staying power thatís, as far as we can tell, intrinsic, at least for people living in the Westernized world. People like blues changes, a lot of people really seem to like them for a long time. But even they will eventually wear out. Canít go on forever. The world is long, art is short.

GC: I hope the world is long.

RC: Right, I hope the world is long. And I know art is short.

Spin, 1988