Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Pazz and Jop Diary: Eight Nights a Week

I've never been an adept of live rock and roll. Although I preferred the radio, and records when I could afford them, I spent a fair amount of time in clubs as a youth. But the clubs were the Five Spot and the Village Gate and the musicians were Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane--artists best apprehended in person, no matter how wonderful and well made their albums. When I began to write rock criticism in 1967, Pete Seeger and the Rolling Stones were the only major white non-jazz musicians I had ever seen live. That quickly changed, of course; soon I was doing concerts and clubs two or three times a week. My priorities, however, remained the same; even as I became something of a habitué at the Fillmore East and the Bitter End, I turned into a complete obsessive around the stereo.

Looking back, I sometimes regret my own unadventurousness--as I sat at home considering the Boffalongo album, John Prine and Loudon Wainwright and Bonnie Raitt were all playing the Gaslight, a folk club I never visited. But my theory was that eventually the record companies would send the good music to me, and at the time this wasn't a bad theory--closer to the truth, certainly, than the theory that they would deliberately keep the good music away. Anyhow, I've never been one for hanging out in bars. One nice thing about rock and roll records is that they offer the inebriation, the ersatz conviviality, and the bracing hostility of a saloon with none of the long boring stretches.

Or rather, that's one nice thing about good rock and roll records. It's lucky you can read a book or make love while the mediocre ones (not to mention the bad ones) are on. And as the mediocre rock and roll drove out some of the good, I sought alternatives. In the jazz I'd ignored and the folk music I'd despised during the late '60s and early '70s, I found virtues specially suited to people who take pleasure in their living rooms--virtues that have never reached record as automatically as the virtues of rock and roll. When critical enthusiasm did not assure the MC-5, the Stooges, or the New York Dolls a prolonged recording career, some of the best rock and roll really had to go "underground" as well. For the past couple of years it's the rock and roll I've heard in bars that has defined what is possible in the music.

I still love records almost as much as food and sex. But even a record nut finds unique pleasures out on the town--the details of appearances and stage manner, the energy of a critically responsive audience, the spontaneity that makes all music move--and I get to seek them out on the job. It is a job, without question, albeit a privileged one, so call the diary that follows my overtime report for a week and a day. Like most weeks, this one wasn't typical. Because the Bottom Line suffered a last-minute cancellation, and because Central Park was in the past and the Palladium/Avery Fisher season in the future, I heard less "commercial" music than I would have preferred; I did attend the disappointing P-Funk show at the Garden last Saturday, but omitted it from my report because it just didn't fit in. And since my wife was away, my observations weren't as acute as when she's sitting next to me, whispering comments. On the other hand, it was because my wife was away that I felt like going out to music every night.

FRIDAY: Muhal Richard Abrams, the scandalously underrecorded pianist who founded Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, is at Storyville. The one time I've seen Abrams he made my month with a stride solo in which the rigid left-hand chords broke down into a hilarious, audacious not-quite-chaos, and I'm anxious to see him. Storyville is a basement room on 58th Street, five bucks plus two drinks minimum. It's big, but I count only 40 or so patrons, many of whom seem a little lost--half "loft" fans who don't know what to make of Muhal earning some bread uptown, the other half Storyville fans experiencing a similar confusion. Since I don't have the critical chops to understand everything Abrams is trying to do, I'm not always sure how well he's doing it, and at times my attention wanders. There is a solo from drummer Steve McCall, an even more scandalously underrecorded master, and I listen hard to that--over the past year my prejudice against drum solos has evolved into a prejudice against bass solos. McCall winds down into an exploration or low-volume dynamics which has to compete with chairs creaking, doors closing, and Abrams (I think) conversing in the men's room. When Abrams does his own soft, impressionistic exploration later, he competes with waitresses conversing; it's annoying. But the 12-bar blues that closes the set has the same riveting irreverence that made the stride passage so memorable, generating the excitement of the simple form without subscribing to its simplistic cultural assumptions. Abrams has made my month again.

I'm 15 minutes late for the 11:30 show by Tracy Nelson and Dianne Davidson at the Lone Star and am told they won't begin singing till around one; this must be how Tracy got to record for five different record companies inside of six years. So I walk down to Folk City, where a young woman named Linda Webb is singing and playing an acoustic guitar. At one point she indicates that she was doing the same thing five years ago and I recall very vividly why I never used to go to the Gaslight. Inspirational Quatrain One (done, I swear, without a hint of humor): "Your voice came chiming through/On your answering machine/I was so taken with the sound of it/I forgot to leave my name." IQ Two (from a song about a prostitute, a subject Webb describes as "really dreadful"): "Goodbye Rosalie/You're really a sight to see/And there's not much left to your short little dress/Someone really left you a mess."

Finally, up comes George Gerdes, who made two albums I barely noticed in the early '70s. Gerdes is an antidote to the pious wimpiness of folk music; his "Ode to the Sky" (written, he insists, by Grungy O'Muck, or is it Grungio Muck?) might find its way into Webb's repertoire without her ever suspecting: "The sky/Can do anything it wants/Just 'cause it's the sky/It don't have to explain/If it makes it rain/It can snow, it can blow/It can stay, it can go/It's all the same." Actually, this passage also sums up Gerdes's philosophy, especially when balanced against a lyric recommending "Strange." There is a condescending song about soap operas--musicians care a lot about soap operas because they're on in the daytime--which lacks any saving touch of strange, but in general I feel that Linda Webb has been cleared out of my system.

SATURDAY: After a double feature at the St. Mark's I again hit The Lone Star for Tracy Nelson and Dianne Davidson, two talented singers who haven't recorded any compelling music in quite a while. I am awed by this meeting of the egos, and encouraged, because collaboration usually minimizes boredom. But although the band is what folk-rock fans call "tight," and both voices are big as ever--Nelson's dignified and full if not thick, Davidson's more lowdown--I find the music just barely engaging. Nelson has picked up a Janis Joplin cackle when she laughs. I figure that by now she has probably performed "Down So Low" a thousand times.

SUNDAY: Deirdre Wilson, who made a prophetically cabaret-ish record that I admired in 1970 and haven't played since, has an 11 o'clock show at an Upper East Side club called Home. At 10:45 I decide I can't hack the schlep.

MONDAY: Labor Day morning I go downstairs to a waiting limousine, which eventually deposits six of us at Belmont Raceway, where Ray Charles has a free noon show. Admission to the track is $1.50, so this might be a better deal than booze in Vegas. But the only other time I've seen Charles I entitled the review that resulted "Ray Charles Geniuses Around," and when I caught Loretta Lynn at Great Adventure I had more fun on the Ferris wheel. Therefore I make no bets and am rewarded with a relaxed but nonetheless inspired show. Charles's moaning falsetto, which he always deploys judiciously, defeats the muddy sound system again and again, and there is a five-minute vocal and piano gospel vamp that exploits the virtues of improvisation as skillfully as Muhal does. It is pronounced "Movin'," but spelled, as Charles tells us again and again in perfect off-time, M-O-V-I-N G. What'd I say? This is a better deal than booze in Vegas.

At 2 the next morning I give up on Live at the Rat, the Boston new-wave compilation I'm reviewing, and ride by bike down to CBGB, where I recognize two faces from the staff of the Bottom Line. I'm hoping to see (and therefore believe) the Sic Fucks, but instead catch the Nervous Eaters. Good name, good opening song, and loud enough to clear the sinuses, but even when they're singing about consensual suicide or the "Nazi concentration-camp blues" (be thankful it's a blues), they strike me the way many second-rate CBGB bands do: this is Aerosmith with one-fifth the talent and one-tenth the venture capital, a lot of rote posturing and phony-but-not-campy emoting. Finally I check out their poster and learn that their single is on Rat Records. Boston haunts me tonight.

TUESDAY: Tonight is the main event--George Jones at the Bottom Line for his New York solo debut. Rumor is that George is reluctant, not to say scared, and as we walk into the press party preceding the gig we are informed that he's not going to make it. Much glumness among New York's diehard country-music journalists, many of whom have never seen the greatest male country singer alive. I did once, with Tammy Wynette at Avery Fisher in 1973. He looked scared.

After a respectful pause to watch the Yankee game I move on to Max's, where I hope to hear a whole set of the Senders, who once pleased me with a tag-end comprising two songs, and check out Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. For this I also get the Squirrels, who (despite their cries of "Rock and roll!") do not please me with a tag-end comprising three songs, and some guy with an electric guitar and an in with the management who does six compositions that make me appreciate Linda Webb. l am pleased by the Senders' last two songs. Teenage Jesus recalls one of those bands that used to hang around the Mercer during the Dolls' time--very "visual," very "minimal," very "arty." The drummer looks about 40 and affects the demeanor of a Meadowbrook outpatient, banging funereally on the two snares that make up his entire kit, while the lead singer, a stout young woman whose black hair looks like an extension of her black leatherette pantsuit, recites lyrics that are pessimistic in mood: "Across the window/Under the curtain/Break the glass/Feel the pain." After 15 minutes I figure I get the idea and leave. Rock and roll!

WEDNESDAY: Despite its conspicuous unpretentiousness, I distrust contemporary cabaret for the status aspirations of both its practitioners and its audience. Just as I'm not surprised to overhear a woman near me at the Ballroom wonder whether she can survive on 18 grand a year if she leaves her husband, I'm not surprised that Liz Corrigan is ballyhooed for her proficiency in blues and country and rock. Too often sophistication is the cultural imperialism of the middle of the road. What does surprise me is the Smokey Robinson song that follows Corrigan's dreary, let's-make-music opener. She has one of those deep, flexible voices that are too commonly let loose to swoop around on their own, but her version of "I Second That Emotion," while more consciously expressionistic than Smokey's, has the same ease of feeling--with the vocal virtuosity adding touches of fun. Corrigan doesn't maintain this pitch, but I appreciate the sophistication of her taste--here is someone who can follow "T 'Ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do" with "My Funny Valentine" and close with a Jimmy Buffett song that doesn't sound complacently world-weary. I leave the Ballroom feeling horny. I can't remember the last singer who did that for me.

THURSDAY: One singer who never has is Debbie Blondie, Queen of the Punks; her blonde-bombshell parody is too close to a fully inhabited role and that stereotype has never turned me on. But tonight, CBGB is jammed with fans who lust after her image, and she seems in control of it. Her hair is now in what my sister calls a long fork, a Richard Hell rat's nest, and when the lights get the band sweating as heavily as the patrons she comes up with a line in perfect Brooklynese: "My new style is just gettin' ru-ined!" The music sounds rough. but good rough, dirty as opposed to sloppy. Up front is the only place you can see when CBGB is crowded, and I'm standing on tiptoe in my own juice, just like everybody else. Feels good. On the way out I switch on my transistor for primary results. "Who's winning?" yells some punk (or is he a wave?). "Koch and Cuomo," I respond. "Who?" "Blavatsky and Kropotkin." He doesn't get it.

FRIDAY: To combat my prejudice against bass solos, I go see Ron Carter's quartet at Sweet Basil. I'm also interested in pianist Kenny Barron, but he's hard to hear from where I am--it isn't only electric music that creates acoustical problems. Carter makes his piccolo bass wail like a horn on "Straight No Chaser," but there are no epiphanies, my wife is sitting next to me again, and I want to go home.

Village Voice, Sept. 19, 1977