Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Diplomatic Ties

On the first rock critic Secretary of State

Shortly after we learned that our next president had selected someone named Antony Blinken as his Secretary of State came an email from Greil Marcus with a subject line I admired so much I quoted it on Twitter: "First rock critic Secretary of State. But probably only 73rd Harvard one." Inside was a link to Blinken's review of the last and least pious of Bob Dylan's three "Christian" albums, Shot of Love, in the October 3, 1981 Harvard Crimson. Only 19 at the time, sometime musician and future Harvard magna Blinken quickly became a big deal at the Crimson, editing its arts magazine as well as contributing many political pieces. But I've located only three additional album reviews, all from 1982: Lou Reed's The Blue Mask March 19, Marshall Crenshaw September 25, the Who's It's Hard October 2.

Those four albums split into pairs. Dylan and the Who were '60s heroes trying to keep their bearings as the '70s dwindled into an ever-receding past. Both failed. Dylan followed his Christian trinity with four skeptically reviewed secular albums and two worse live ones before righting himself somewhat with 1989's Oh Mercy. And the Who simply threw it in--after It's Hard, which Blinken reckoned "triumphantly reaffirms the power and relevance of Townshend's music" and most reckoned a strident art-rock disaster, they didn't release another album for 24 years. But Blinken's other two choices were different. The melodically fetching, lyrically humorous and humane Crenshaw was just beginning his long career as the pop demigod God forgot. And although Reed came up in the '60s, by 1982 he was more punk godfather than rock hero, and in the wake of his up-and-down '70s The Blue Mask was a breakthrough and everybody knew it--although fewer including Blinken understood how much it owed his fruitful partnership with supple bassist Fernando Saunders and his fraught fling with doomed guitarist Robert Quine. So while over there Blinken staked a claim on the halcyon '60s, over here he let Harvard know that the rock cornucopia hadn't yet run dry by devoting column inches to two Pazz & Jop top 10s.

Still scouting for talent as Village Voice music editor back then, I ask myself how I might have responded if Blinken had sent me these clips, which while solid enough could use more spark. Depends on the pitch letter is my guess, which given what became of him he probably would have aced. But Blinken had other plans--several, actually. Because understand--at 19, this kid had already lived the kind of privileged life that destines you for something big if it doesn't mess you up altogether. His father was a New York investment banker, his stepfather a heroic Holocaust survivor who became a big-time attorney. Through his mother, who managed Merce Cunningham's company, his father, president of the Mark Rothko Foundation after the painter's children won rightful control of it, and his stepfather, who represented Christo in Paris and a bevy of movie stars in Hollywood, he brushed shoulders with major artists throughout his childhood and was still dabbling in the movie business in his thirties. But instead he wound up as first a speechwriter for and then a director of Bill Clinton's National Security Council.

In 2001, when Blinken was 38, he married the decade-younger Evan Ryan, a Clinton White House aide who would ultimately become Barack Obama's Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural Affairs. And shortly thereafter began the long relationship with then-senator Joe Biden that will soon make Blinken Secretary of State unless Mitch McConnell is even viler than we think. Blinken isn't the international peacemaker of dreams--his commitment to democracy comes with an interventionist streak that would have sent the military to not just Syria but Libya. But he remains a wide-ranging and impressive guy who's never stopped playing music. There's even video of him sitting in on "Hoochie Coochie Man" with a band of D.C. luminaries dubbed the Coalition of the Willing. Blinken's respectful yet unabashed vocal turns Muddy Waters's brag into a kind of sacred text, its cooch, black cat bone, and $700 remnants of an honorable history that's then lifted into a transformed present by 16 spectacular bars from none other than Skunk Baxter, whose post-music biz career calculating ballistic weapons risk once had him considering a House run as a Republican.

But this is by no means the most daring music in Blinken's resume, because soon after the Harvard Crimson revelations came the Spotify revelations--under the moniker ABlinken (say it aloud if you don't get the joke, an impudent one for a Secretary of State), Blinken is as of this writing still streaming two midtempo songs b/w guitar, bass, and drums plus hints of synthesized strings and high male background vocals. One is called "Patience" and the other "Lip Service," of which my tipster Marcus wrote: "This isn't as bad as 'Patience,' which is real background music for whatever soft family series is currently filling the `Thirtysomethings' slot." Ahh, Greil--as so often happens, I disagree. Blinken's soft-edged baritone delivers two effective if not quite catchy melodies, and both songs are distinguished lyrically, "Patience" especially. One reason I got interested in Blinken's marriage is that I'd gathered that it involved a long courtship, and long courtships are something that interest me--under radically dissimilar circumstances, I pursued my own wife for two years before we finally coalesced in 1972. So I'm well aware that in a music full of love songs I take more seriously than most critics, not many are about patience, and not many more begin like "Lip Service": "I took a look around nothing to see/But then I finally found someone like me."

That couplet would seem a strange sentiment for a diplomat, whose job is finding common ground with others, only maybe it isn't. Diplomatic conversation, after all, is by definition calculated no matter how warm the underlying personal connections--one doesn't exclude the other. Later in the song, in fact, the lover thinks like a diplomat: "I want to convince you," and even more, "I know it's a mistake/To open my heart/Make things too easy/Shed light on the dark." But I still don't understand exactly what "lip service" means--something about kissing? Anyway, calculation isn't my way--I've been getting by on candor my whole life. That's one reason I prefer "Patience," which finds itself driven to actual truth-telling: "Patience is walkin' around with you/When I know your heart isn't mine/Patience is not knowin' what to do/And the thought that I could be tryin' harder." Then it's "Help me now, 'cause patience is dyin'." And then: "Patience is the test of life itself/And to fail would be suicidal." And throughout: "I think that I could love you for our lives."

Love songs with a fresh angle are rare, and many would call this one a deception--after all, statistics prove that love for life is a doomed fantasy more often than not. But you have to admit one thing. You're a lot more likely to make that fantasy happen than to broker world peace.

And It Don't Stop, November 27, 2020