Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

An Unruly Collection

Finally found time to read the Robert Palmer collection Blues & Chaos, edited by NAJP-er Anthony DeCurtis. Highly recommended--should do every bit as much for Palmer's critical status as the "real" books Deep Blues and Rock & Roll: An Unruly History (currently out of print, which it shouldn't be, but available very cheap used, and also highly recommended). DeCurtis outdid himself here. He does include a few book extracts--good save from Palmer's coffee-table Stones job, which is far from his finest work. Liner notes aplenty--the Palmer essay accompanying the Bo Diddley box remains the best thing Palmer ever wrote (though I'm sorry not to have the Elmore James essay he gave Rhino as well). But most of this is journalism, much of it written from the Rolling Stone that made room for distinguished criticism both in essays flat-out and reviews longer than 150 words, and there's also worthy stuff from Down Beat, Memphis Magazine, Penthouse, The New York Times, and other periodicals. Here imagine me blotting a tear from my eye as I recollect good times past. Boo hoo.

Thirty of the book's final 70 pages are devoted to an excerpted 1975 Rolling Stone Interview with William S. Burroughs and his irrepressible sidekick Brion Gysin. As far as I'm concerned, much of what Burroughs says is, as usual, utter hogwash. DeCurtis being nothing if not sensible, I expect he more or less agrees, but that doesn't mean he made the wrong editorial decision. On the contrary, one thread that runs through the book is Palmer's attraction to extreme experiences that we sensibles suspect sustain a high hogwash quotient. His two long reports from Morocco are compelling and revealing. Convincing? Not so much. Palmer was a committed avant-gardist, and because he also had a deep understanding of certain "popular" forms while at the same time pretty much despising "pop," his writing about such ideas is far more useful than most. But my favorite section of Blues & Chaos is about '50s rock and roll.

Palmer, who died in 1997, was a major critic. Yet note that this collection of his criticism includes interview material and memoir material if precious little straight reporting. That's a positive by me--it's journalistic criticism, which as a committed critic-first I think is the best kind because it admits more of the impurities that are the stuff of life. It also includes a number of what Doug McLennan referred to in his last post as "reviews." But it's to DeCurtis's credit that--except for the strange final piece, a little 1993 review of the forgotten New York band Band of Susans that I assume DeCurtis put in there because it destroyed any illusion of formal closure--he knows that some reviewing stands as criticism better than other. In fact, the galley version included two Times reviews a little too occasional to work in a book of this sort, which is stronger without them. Good call, whoever made it.

Reviews serve an important function; the occasional is oft occasioned. But in general I prefer reviews that aspire to criticism, which happens even at 150 words (and not just in the Consumer Guide either). My ideal arts magazine makes plenty of room for critical analysis straight up and makes it its business to hire reviewers who understand critical aspiration--writerly aspiration. Anything less would exemplify why Robert Palmer had an aversion to pop that pop didn't and shouldn't deserve.

2 Comments

By Mark Horowitz on August 5, 2010 6:07 PM

Does anyone have any idea if Palmer's wonderful review of 20s jazz (examining its similarities to the 60s jazz avant-garde) for Rolling Stone has been republished? I know it was in the old, old anthology "The Rolling Stone Record Review," but I haven't been able to locate it in any of Palmer's own collections.

By Joe Yanosik on August 5, 2010 8:29 PM

Robert Palmer also wrote great liner notes for the Ray Charles box set "The Birth of Soul", as well as the Muddy Waters "Chess Box."

As far as I know, you never formally reviewed the 1989 3CD Muddy Waters "The Chess Box" and I sure would like to know your opinion of it.

Is it a worthy box like the Howlin' Wolf Chess Box, or could one get by with the 2001 2-CD Anthology comp?

Articles, July 11, 2010


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