Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Loving Women and Duran Duran

I have no business writing about Rob Sheffield, but through the magic of Full Disclosure, I can. There are people you know, and then there are people who can quote a Jim Carroll review you wrote decades ago while you're discussing Patti Smith's memoir in your book group. Sheffield is in the latter category. Don't believe another thing I say about him. But be warned that your cynicism, like most cynicism, comes at a price that will resist valuation.

Sheffield is obviously a high-status fan. I don't mean the Rolling Stone columnist part--there have been lots of those. I mean he's the only rock critic ever to write a best-seller that wasn't a biography: 2007's Love Is a Mix Tape, his music-filled memoir of a marriage cut short in a minute in 1997, which is how long it took his wife, Renee Crist, to die of an embolism. Not long ago I talked to someone I respect who thought this wasn't a good book. It's a sign of how much I respect this person that I (and my wife) protested briefly and then just changed the subject. Warming up to write this, I scanned all 67 Amazon reviews and had horrible thoughts about anyone who gave it three stars or less. Four I guess I can understand--maybe the mixtape stuff (I prefer the one-word spelling) isn't always perfectly integrated. But the marriage, well--if you think Rob loved Renee too much, I feel sorry for you. The descriptions are so adoring, yet so unsentimental, and quite often so funny. Sheffield is very funny. Even when he begins the book by describing a sleepless night complete with coffee spent listening to a Renee-created mixtape he hadn't known he had, he's wry about his own obsessions and even Renee's foibles. I love my own wife publicly and passionately, but I can't imagine how he arrived at this tone. Maybe it's in the love--or in his talent.

Having written a best-seller (by which I mean reached the lower reaches of the Times extended list), Sheffield could do naught else but try to write another. And although I suppose he could have tried for a sequel about his second marriage, he wisely--in fact, since nothing as esoteric as wisdom was required, let's just call it sanely--did not. Instead he wrote what you could classify as a prequel. Talking to Girls About Duran Duran is a bildungsmemoir that dips back to his early adolescence, with each chapter keyed to an '80s musical artist. Some of these are renowned: Prince, Madonna, Chaka Khan, Replacements, Smiths. Others are obscure, ridiculed, or both: Human League, OMD, Haysi Fantayzee, New Kids, L'Trimm. And a crucial group falls in between: Culture Club, Hall & Oates, Tone Loc, Big Daddy Kane, Duran Duran themselves. Myself, I have little use for at least half these artists, as for instance Hall & Oates: "definitive proof that instinctive musicality insures no other human virtue." Oddly, my old fan kind of agrees with me on that point. But he likes Hall & Oates anyway.

That's one of the things this book is about--liking and even loving music of dubious ultimate import. But not in a guilty pleasure kind of way. Sheffield's way too smart for that saw, plus he a) grew up with this music, which means he knows it as no older or younger person can and b) has an astonishing critical ability to internalize and home in on musical details that make you wonder whether its import has been underrated. This is a guy who remembers hundreds if not thousands of song lyrics. I cannot make that claim (and in fact didn't remember that Jim Carroll review either). As a result, the book is full of small and large insights into artists large and small.

The critical part is ancillary. It's a memoir first of all--the memoir of an extreme nerd whose relationship to women in general is also extreme. Out of some suggested but never fully analyzed synthesis of insecurity and respect, Rob Sheffield was built to love Renee Crist the way few men ever love their wives--and also, I would assume, to love his wife Ally with comparable (but of course differently constituted) intensity. Talking to Girls About Duran Duran is about that structure of feeling. (FWIW, I never met Renee, though I edited her on the phone once; I've met Ally several times, but casually. Nor have I ever discussed these matters with Rob. So this is all inference, based on the books.) But it's also a work of criticism--quite possible the best that will ever be written about the music of the '80s, which my fan Rob Sheffield thinks was the greatest of all musical decades and I don't.

4 Comments

By Blair on September 21, 2010 7:08 AM

I had read those amazon reviews as well and I found many to be overly caustic. Robert Sheffield is a great critic partly because he has such a strong voice. Many times I had started reading a review without noticing the byline and by the end of the first paragraph I had guessed that it was by him, and was right.

By Jim Shutterly on September 25, 2010 9:11 PM

This may be a little off topic but speaking of Amazon reviews I was reading a consumer guide from October 1994 (don't ask why) and I noticed a review of the Fellow Travellers' CD Things and Times. I'm an old friend of Jeb Nichols and I've always wanted to listen to that record. Inspired, I went to Amazon and found a product description from the editorial board that was a verbatim copy of the CG review. I guess you authorize them, right?

By Jones on September 27, 2010 3:58 PM

How picky of me! I haven't read "Talking to Girls About Duran Duran," so don't know whether he professes (or confesses) this outright, that the 80s "was the greatest of all musical decades," but I can from "Love Is a Mix Tape" your fan quote. And I quote: "As far as I'm concerned, the '90s was the best era for music ever, even the stuff that I loathed at the time, even the stuff that gave me stomach cramps."

By Jim on November 4, 2010 8:37 PM

You both inspire me (Rob 'n' Bob) on the marriage front. As a solitude loving 37 year old who finally embarked on the voyage less than two years ago, I'm still marveling at the bond I share and probably always will. When I have moments of frustration and reflect, in my optimistic moments I aspire to the strength of your unions.

Articles, Sept. 20, 2010


Aesthetics in Journalism--and History For Max Salazar, 1932-2010