Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Little Night Music II: Ain't Got No Home

When my wife Carola went away for a week last September, I made sense of the dead time by going out to music every night and publishing my findings in your favorite newspaper. This is a kind of sequel to that report, prompted not by a new set of loose ends but by a deluge of interesting music. I didn't see six live acts in the two months preceding September 27, which is when I suddenly realized that just to keep my head above water I was going to have to double up on three consecutive nights. Such saturation always activates the synapses, and since the world tends to change in the course of a year, I decided some ruminations were in order.

Some of the apparent changes are no doubt accidents of timing. Last year my schedule exposed me to lots of second-level celebrities. However different Muhal Richard Abrams, Tracy Nelson, Debbie Blondie, and Ron Carter may be, they've all earned a musical reputation that in turn earns them a living. Each of them is a legend in some way, but being a legend hasn't made any of them especially famous, and, except for Carter who does quite well in the studio, it hasn't made any of them especially rich either. Three of my must-sees this time round--Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Al Green--are rich and famous enough for 10 Ron Carters. Most of the rest have day jobs.

This last is no coincidence--it's connected to a fundamental change in my music-going habits. Last year my piece celebrated eclecticism. Punk had taught me that, even discounting jazz, some of the best available music could be heard only in bars. But not much of the punk I was hearing in bars a year ago was very good. Because the decline of recorded rock had impelled me to seek aural satisfaction elsewhere, I'd been opened up to folk, jazz, even cabaret--stuff that I'd managed to live without in the good old days. Since rock and roll orthodoxy offends me at least as much as the other kinds, this seemed a point worth emphasizing. And then the good old days returned.

By which I mean to say that I've spent a lot of the past year at CBGB and Max's--as well as Club 57, Irving Plaza, Hurrah, Trax, Great Gildersleeves, Club Hollywood, the goddamn Kitchen, and various lofts and art spaces--seeking out La Nueva Ola, and that I've had a lot of fun doing it. To hell with eclecticism. In this one year I've seen more of the B-52s, "a tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia," than I've seen of John Prine and Sonny Rollins combined in my entire life. Not that I think that the B-52s are better than Prine or Rollins, who are geniuses. It's just that I'm basically a rock and roller, and since last September--due to the punk explosion in England or the flow of good records from first-generation New York bands or simple second wind--New York has been a great rock and roll town again.

I grant you that New Wavers not only aspire to crudeness as an aesthetic virtue but that for the most part they don't play together so good. But such is the price of amateurism. And these are amateurs in the literal sense even if they think they're in it for bucks--they offer not accomplished music but new ideas and the sense (rather than the illusion) that the old tricks have never been performed before. Admittedly, such virtues are strangely attractive to jaded rock critics, but it must also be admitted that they come more naturally to rock and roll than to sculpture, say, or basketball. And as for basketball, I've always had a weakness for the high school variety.

And so I've become more interested in catching some kid who's still scrambling suddenly put it all together than in watching the established pro with the flawless jump shot score his 14.2 per game. But if it's a fact that I once drove out to Morristown on my night off from the suburban sports phones at the Newark Star-Ledger just to witness five-foot-seven Davey Caldwell in the flesh (worth it), it's also true that I once hitchhiked to Boston to see Cousy before he retired (also worth it). The first four-day weekend of my latest binge combined both impulses.

THURSDAY: In honor of his solo arena tour, Neil Young is actually using props--weird ones, of course--and doing a little two-step as he plays. Wotta showman. The acoustic set begins with "Sugar Mountain" and "I Am a Child," reminding me of how his greatest melodies brush up against banality, and when he follows with "Comes a Time" and "Already One" these suspiciously folkie-sounding new songs suddenly take on a classic aura. The electric set reestablishes Crazy Horse as the greatest rock band in America (except the Ramones, of course). An as yet unrecorded song features the already notorious lines, "The king is dead but not forgotten/This is a song about Johnny Rotten," but even more rousing is the way another one alternates a very punkish forced rhythm with conspicuously sinuous passages. I don't know whether all the cotton-clad young visionaries squatting mysteriously unharassed in the aisle beside me get this stuff; I cheer for Johnny Rotten, they cheer for "I felt like getting high." But it's good enough to make me all but ignore the Yankee game on my transistor radio.

Afterward Carola and I walk to Max's to check up on Sid Vicious and friends, who last time included Mick Jones of the Clash, one live act I'd been sorry to miss. We catch two songs by some black punks called Pure Hell who profit from their awareness that they are treading where Jimi Hendrix has trod, then wait an hour or more with a fairly full house of ordinary New Wave curiosity-seekers. The show begins curtain-up-and-bam and turns pathetic almost as fast. Without Johnny Rotten to bounce off of, punk's most defiant amateur is reduced to a beginner's semi-pro moves--thrust hand forward for emphasis, fall to floor for climax, scratch abdomen without drawing blood. Nor do Jerry Nolan and Arthur Kane enliven Punk's Greatest Hits--two Stooges, two Heartbreakers, one Nugget, one Eddie Cochran. Midway through Sid can be heard saying to some poor song-requester, "Shut up, you fucking twat." Wotta showman. No wonder the Rolling Stone guy thought he was really Huckleberry Finn.

FRIDAY: It's a canard that Rockaday Bobby is aiming for Vegas--there's more money in the arenas--but Sid could learn a thing or two from the one-flourish-per-syllable clincher on "I Shall Be Released." Although the crowd is pretty young, there are lots of over-30s in our freebie section, and they all seem impressed that both they and Bobby are still breathing. But Dylan's new show is nowhere near as careless as Rolling Thunder or as depressing as Street-Legal--there are a few interesting new songs, many of the vocals seem quite intense, and while most of the reinterpretations are pointless, I stand up and yell for the heavy-metal-as-scrap-metal arrangement of "Masters of War," which always cried out to be covered by Blue Cheer. Maybe the over-30s have something--anybody who can get me to stand up in Madison Square Garden ain't dead yet. In other news, Willie Randolph pulls a hamstring. This worries me.

Tonight Carola and I walk four blocks past Max's to Irving Plaza, a union-hall sort of space that resembles the old Dom down on St. Mark's Place. It's hired most Fridays by Stanley, a Polish guy in a bowler hat who also seems to operate a bar called Club 57 down on St. Mark's Place. A very casual venue. U.S. Ape proffer "an interesting chord you might not want to play," and Regina & Red Hot do a nouveau girl-group set that peaks early with "Young and Stupid" ("She's so young and stupid/just what he's been looking for"), before you begin to notice how little noise they get out of two guitars. Headlining are the Invaders, unpretentious punkoids who aren't above a Rolling Stones or Chuck Berry cover. This simply isn't done any longer in more tasteful musical circles, and in June they knocked my suede sneakers off. Tonight they open with "Rock Around the Clock," and though their performance, muddied by the p. a., has less punch than I remember, their identity has firmed up. It combines punk attack with bluesier intricacies, much less heavy musically and nihilistic socially than the Dead Boys, but not altogether dissimilar. Regina sings lead on a "Be My Baby" that climaxes the evening neatly.

I really like Irving Plaza. Although it's been known to attract scene-making good guys on the order of Lenny Kaye and Richard Lord, it's not a scene, and with Stanley's associates from Club 57 providing a nice admixture there's very little of that obsessive New Wave cool consciousness among the clientele. People dance--steps range from Lindy and twist offshoots to pogo variations--but not because they think it's correct to dance. Of course, one reason the place is so pleasant is that it's roomy, and one reason it's roomy is that, according to my rough head count, there are only about 125 people in the joint, many of whom must be freebies. At four bucks a head--now five at the door, if I read the ad correctly--that won't cover the rental. Does Stanley hope to make his money at the bar? No drink over $1.50, the ad says. Good luck, Stanley.

SATURDAY: The immediate reason I'm attending the New Lost City Ramblers' 20th-birthday concert at Carnegie Hall is that Mike Seeger, an acquaintance I like a lot, has asked me specially to come. But in truth I'm grateful for the push, because after 20 years I've realized that there are self-consciously "traditional" performers who reject the sentimentality and gentility of so much "folk music" almost as fervently as I do. And indeed, from the hook of the opening fiddle tune I'm captivated--even if these were the academic reductions some bluegrass born-againers believe them to be, it would still do my ears good to hear Libba Cotten's picking, Mike Seeger's Kentucky slave song, Tracy Schwarz's spoons. But when special guest Pete Seeger gets the crowd singing along--quite expertly, for this is a gathering of experts--I note sourly that some choice harmonies have been swallowed up in the makeshift ensemble of ticket-holding professors and psychologists. There is no music that strives so valiantly to transform an audience into a community, but just because I've learned to enjoy the way it sounds doesn't mean I have any use for the next step.

With this in mind I walk over to Hurrah, half a mile and half a world away at 62nd and Broadway. Hurrah is a converted disco with pop punk on the sound system. The Ramones and Patti Smith have already showcased there, and acquaintances tell me that since the place went New Wave they find Max's and CB's intolerably cramped and scuzzy. I think this means I'm acquainted with too many classy New Wavers. Theoretically, I appreciate the comfort, but I feel hemmed in by the 62nd Street vibes. I'm basically a downtown person, and I have my own taste in trendies--too many of Hurrah's patrons look as if they think a punk disco is where you hustle to a different drummer. Boston's La Peste play a blistering set that inspires me to pace around and pogo discreetly among the nonstop dancers until I'm drawn up front to be deafened and overwhelmed. Such mobility is gratifying. But the image that sticks with me later is the sunglasses-after-dark type in clean chinos and dirty sneakers who stands motionless as a mannequin on one of the white plastic benches. Talk about posers.

Later I walk back to the Ramblers' hotel, where a party for all concertgoers is in progress. There are records for sale and everyone is making music or talking. A nice get-together, only I don't know anyone there. As I leave, I overhear a conversation at the elevator. The subject is tenure.

SUNDAY: The last of Al Green's six weekend shows at the Apollo is scheduled for 10:30, and Carola and I buy seats at the door. Many extenuating circumstances ("baby with me," "my eyes are bad," like that) are adduced at the ticket window of the refurbished theatre, now finally black-owned. I'm reminded of Dead heads trying to talk their way into a sold-out show, only this is a geographical community rather than (as well as I should say) a spiritual one. Unfortunately, the community isn't thriving--there are fewer than 800 customers in the 1600-capacity venue, and I'm told that even early Saturday wasn't full. The world's greatest soul singer probably can't draw 10,000 people in a weekend anywhere anymore, but the reason the place is so far from full has more to do with the viability of neighborhood entertainment/culture in America 1978. The Apollo's $6-$8-$10 scale is about double the old one and rather more than the Palladium's, yet even discounting the recently instituted half-price-for-teens deal on the early show, it's not unjustifiable economically--black entertainers are no longer inclined to work for slave wages, and this theatre is only half the size of the Palladium with all the improved visibility that implies. But to residents of St. Alban's or White Plains who can afford the prices, 125th Street doesn't necessarily feel like home, and many of them would just as soon sit further away at the Felt Forum or Avery Fisher. I bet it doesn't feel the same telling your story at the box office, though.

What makes this doubly unfortunate is that the Apollo is as homey as it used to be. I'm put off at first by jive-talking D.J. Hollywood, a strapping youth who seems to spin records mostly as preludes to his own rhymed rhythm-machine raps, but gradually I notice that (a) people are dancing, including two stagehands who have worked out a routine that they perform in their stagehand clothes, (b) D.J. is terrific with babies, and (c) he makes fun of his own swelled head and solid body ("bowlegged as you'd want to see") and is attired in what appears to be a hooded sweatshirt. Definitely not your player image, and by the end I love him almost as much as everybody else seems to. Almost as impressive is the "homeboy" moralizing about "black talent" and "the Harlem community" of bald-domed Roger Walker. Resplendent in his emcee garb, he urges us to attend the gospel show the following weekend: "Can't be the Commodores all the time."

As per tradition, Walker spars verbally with one young wise-ass, who is eventually removed from his box with the general approval of an audience that's as active and irreverent as ever. In case you were wondering, about five per cent of this audience is white, an increase over the norm of yore--perhaps so-called crossover music, for all its artistic equivocation, has done something to counteract the chickenshit racism of '70s liberals--but its fellowship is unchanged, as just and judgmental as ever. It takes a few minutes for the hard-working Labelle-without-camp routines of Hodges, James & Smith to win everyone over, but eventually the trio even coaxes up a community sing, and I join in, feeling more at ease than I had at Carnegie. And though I'm told Al Green had trouble with the half-price teens the night before, these folks are clearly prepared to accept his shtick, which over the years has developed into the most satisfying tension-and-release--or rather, tease-tease-tease-and-deliver--in showbiz. The questions are absolutely formalized by now. How much will the band vamp and solo? How far will Al stray from the microphone? How much will he sing? How much will he preach? Me, I could listen to Al Green praise Jesus in song till hell freezes over, and when he belts into an encore of "Love and Happiness"--his seventh song of the night--I am fulfilled. He may not have vocalized more than 20 minutes in a 45-minute set. But he's worked up such a sweat that his white shirt has been gray-with-white-cuffs since "Let's Stay Together."

I devote the next two nights to baseball, but I am aware that between the ideologically communal folkies and the neighborhood-conscious Apollo I am being led back into a '60s-ish theme, and that my old '60s heroes aren't equal to it. At the two Garden concerts what excited me, positively or negatively, was music; I liked Young's junior dopers more than Dylan's cross-generational hero-worshippers, but I hardly identified with them. On the other hand, the '70s rock and roll I love hasn't been living up to this theme either--not in New York, where Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole. Punk England had offered palpable social dimension, sure, but this has always been an arty town. As it happens, I feel more at home in the seamily bohemian student-to-groupie ambience of CBGB than in any club I've ever been in, but I don't hang out there to share my identity or my love of art with like souls. In fact, I don't hang out there at all. I've never hung out anywhere in my life.

WEDNESDAY: At around 8:45 I ride my bike to the Performing Garage in SoHo, where a rock trio called the Government has been interwoven into a performance piece of "video cabaret" called Electric Eye. The protagonist is "David Berserkowitz," the kind of pun that New Wavers once-removed--such as all those I've heard from Toronto, the Wasp heaven where this presentation originated--think is very punk. The Government cross the Doors and the Velvets--that is, they'd like to sound like the former (a whooshing strike one) but can only execute as well as the latter (fouled off for strike two). They're adequate to the task, I suppose, thus distinguishing the music from the acting ("performing") and writing ("conceiving"). Called strike three: Only in Toronto would someone describe fist-fucking (another oh-so-punk theme) as "he sticks his arm up my bung" (italics added). When my artist companion and I leave during a second piece called Strawberry Fields the audience goes from nine to seven.

I guess it's art-rock night, because my next stop is Peter Gabriel's very SRO Bottom Line showcase. Gabriel's reputation as a master showman goes back to his days as the genius of Genesis. Now that he's hard rock, he's stripped down the costume design, and he clearly has more sophisticated visual ideas than his sidemen, several of whom go for the tables, always an audience-involving maneuver. Actually, the music is pretty good. But during the boring part I ask myself what I'm doing at the Bottom Line with all these Genesis fans at one o'clock in the morning, and before I can get a grip on myself I'm out the door.

THURSDAY: By 7:50 there is a formidable line outside Club 57--that's right, Stanley's Club 57, although in just what sense it's Stanley's remains unclear--for Patti Smith and Sam Shepard's Cowboy Mouth. Somehow we all squeeze into a small basement that also contains a bar and a fairly commodious performance space. Carola and I are escorted up front, which means there's air to one side of us, which helps us pay attention. The play circa-1971 Patti (her language and spirit, Shepard's craft), and it includes a lot of arty bullshit about Mick Jagger as savior, but always with good Patti the arty bullshit is not only true but mitigated by congenial self-parody. There's also a lobster costume that would make a stalled elevator seem like a fairly fun place to be.

The play ends with the lobster disrobing and doing a one-legged twist to "Rip This Joint," which leads into a wonderful tape compiled by director Gordon Edelstein. Or is it solely the tape that's wonderful? lan Dury, Plastic Bertrand, Buddy Holly, more Stones--on the playlist at Hurrah this kind of stuff sounds A-O.K. but also pro forma, yet here it's special. This is partly because I expect the unheard of from a disco deejay and partly the dramatic context. But mostly it's the attitude of the dancers, and this is underlined by the Foolish Virgins' set.

Ever since Lenny Kaye made hash of the dictum that critics should avoid socializing with artists it's been getting more and more impossible to follow, which is why it's quite unremarkable that at least one Foolish Virgin--bassist John Piccarella--happens to be a friend of mine. By now people I know from The Voice have started four different bands, and Perry Brandston, the stepson of one of my best friends and a pretty good friend himself, has been doing sound for various SoHo groups since early this year. In this sense my favorite '70s rock and roll can be said to have created a community. But it's an artists' one I connect to as a journalist supporter, and whatever its aesthetic or moral superiority it's not much different structurally from the community of El Lay studio musicians whose insularity--concentrated by power, to be sure--I excoriate so passionately. What went on in Club 57 was another ballgame.

The Foolish Virgins are a medium-level band in need of more varied material and vocal presence. The concept is punk Blonde on Blonde with Paul LaRoid's Al-Kooper-cum-?-and-the-Mysterians organ the key, but singer-songwriter-guitarist Steve McAvoy is the center of attention and it's often too obvious that he knows it. On the other hand, McAvoy is one of the few guitarists on the scene capable of a self-sustaining solo of more than 16 bars, and as if to state his coordinates he quotes John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" on the first song. This is good stuff, but soon the music levels off into a succession of those repetitive displays that haunt potential virtuosos. The theatregoers have left the club, leaving a core of 25 or 30 rock and rollers, and among them are three chunky young blondes with square-cut Slavic faces who came in and started dancing when the tape was on--one loose and expressionistic as if tipsy or on tubes, the second more subtle and sexual, the third with a charming mechanical stiffness that suits the real rhythms of the Virgin's music. When they can't raise partners they dance alone or with each other, their energy cutting right through the band's shortcomings; the loose one even chants into the mike during rave-ups. A little more than halfway through the set they have somehow triggered a pileup of fallen bodies, and it is about then that the band takes off again.

By the end of the set I've forgotten that it's my friend up there--for five or 10 minutes it's just great rock and roll, with McAvoy in the lead. And I don't think it would have happened had not the insularity of Blonde on Blonde/Cowboy Mouth been violated by three people who've probably showed up only because they live nearby. I'm reminded in retrospect of the most exciting concert I've attended all year, the Ramones at the Palladium in January--not for its music, although that was fine, but for its mix of punks and closet punks and weekend punks and curiosity-seekers and aging hippies and aspiring teenyboppers and, oh yes, rock critics too. Who would have thought they'd all be united by the Ramones? That's what I expect from my musical community--the unexpected.

FRIDAY: The Erasers' first set at CBGB is so listless it brings back fond memories of Lance Loud's callisthenic climaxes with the Mumps. But that's the Erasers' problem, not CBGB's--the club doesn't seem especially cramped or scuzzy to me. I don't even mind the smattering of tourists, in fact am quite taken with the Japanese family--mother, father, and three college-age kids, all in their Friday best--who squeeze into three chairs and then leave when the set is half over. I almost left myself. And I prefer tourists at a rock club, which is what you get at CBGB, to the tourists at life who populate Hurrah.

SATURDAY: I don't get to Hurrah until 1:45 Sunday morning, thus missing the Dead Boys' opener. I'm impressed at how the group's fans have scuzzed up the place. There's broken glass underfoot, people are throwing the floor pillows at each other, and one couple is dry-humping in earnest on a low couch. All the mirrors are intact, however. I'm also impressed with the Dead Boys' peculiar integrity--ex-choirboy Stiv Bators makes some comments about millionaire popes and the Spanish Inquisition which induce a real punk, one with muscles, to toss him through a mirror. And when Stiv loses one of his baby teeth and begins to bleed from the mouth, he explains it nicely: "That's what you came to see, right?" Home sweet home. I sit and listen to the sound system afterward and suddenly Tom Petty and the Stones and Blondie and the Pistols and the Ramones and that one I've never heard before sound much better than A-O.K. Carola has to drag me out the door.

SUNDAY: By noon, the sidewalk in front of the Entermedia Theatre, which is on Second Avenue across the street from my apartment, is lined with disciples of one Daevid Allen. Most of them are hirsute young men; many of them have traveled long distances to get here. The occasion is Giorgio Gomelski's "Zu Concert," announced as a 12-hour "manifestival" of "progressive music" from Europe and America. I have these notes to add to Roger Trilling's account in Riffs this week.

(a)

At 12:30 Perry Brandston, who's working with Blinding Headache, comes by to say hello. "There's really a lot of hippies," he informs me. The last time someone said this to me was at a Bo Diddley show in the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco in July, 1966.

(b)

Despite their name. Blinding Headache make more than white noise, but they fall short of their concept chopswise. Neither of these things can be said of Arsenal. Theoretical Girls retain their Best Name title.

(c)

In the interest of bad vibes I have agreed to appear on a panel discussing "progressive music." I am booed when introduced; the booing continues when I utter the single word "Ramones" into the microphone. Later I tell my fans that just as Giorgio overestimated the mass audience's tolerance for "progressive music," so he overestimated the "progressive music" audience's tolerance for panel discussion. Booed again.

(d)

I have two reasons to look forward to the American premier of guitarist Fred Frith. First, people keep calling him the best guitarist in the world. Second, he's the brother of a good friend of mine. The statistical unlikelihood of my good friend's brother turning out to be the best guitarist in the world decreases drastically when he actually performs. Afterward, a guy who's been muttering in an angry, drug-crazed way about Costello, Springsteen, critics, the Muffins, etc., yells out: "Nine hours of bullshit and 40 minutes of God." More overestimation--Frith only played for 20 minutes.

(e)

I fell asleep in my seat before Mother Gong has even warmed up or Daevid Allen reappeared (he did yoga and insulted The Voice as a panel member), so I get up and walk across the street, where I fall asleep in my bed. At around 3:45 I am awakened by shouts of enraged Daevid Allen fans protesting the end of 13 hours of mostly shapeless music. How unexpected--a hostile community wreaking havoc in my own neighborhood. Without too much difficulty, however, I get over my surprise and go back to sleep.

Village Voice, Oct. 23, 1978