Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Black Music: Once Good, Now Even Better, Maybe Best?

I've been hearing black music in important new environments over the past six months or so--at Philharmonic Hall (Dramatics, Stylistics, Staples, Joe Simon) and the Bitter End (Johnny Nash, Bill Paul), with the Rolling Stones (Steve Wonder) and at the Copa (Al Green)--but last week I decided to return to the source, the Apollo Theater on 125th Street.

As black people live and seek musical sustenance away from the ghetto, the Apollo's always precarious economy may teeter, but it is likely to retain its symbolic status. When James Brown attended one night, a packed house gave him a standing ovation. Both his homage to the theater and the crowd's homage to him were significant--things have changed, but not that much. Everything takes time.

As usual, the Apollo astonished like black music itself--with sheer depth of numbers. The headliners at two successive shows, the Detroit Emeralds and Luther Ingram, performed listlessly, but the five or six supporting acts, all packed into the time it takes the first group at a rock concert to set up and play, made up for them.

To an extent this quick-change policy is rooted in general ghetto survival tactics. Just as the uniform costumes and precise choreography of black groups say something about the drawbacks of being too natural, so the quick pace of the show safeguards both performer and audience against the pitfalls of relaxation and self-indulgence. But all this is loosening up. Most black groups now wear individually styled show suits designed around a common theme. Sometimes they even dance as the spirit moves them. And as jazz is integrated back into mainstream black music where it originated, instrumentalists as well as singers are permitted to stretch out a little.

Most of all, the evolving standards of black-music showmanship reflect the warm, mutually responsible relationship between black musicians and their audience, a relationship epitomized every Wednesday night at the Apollo's amateur show. When I went, I watched some 15 aspirants take the stage within two hours. Each one was greeted with hopeful enthusiasm, but as soon as it become obvious that the aspirant had misgauged his talents--sometimes within seconds--the encouragement was magically transformed into candid criticism, usually destructive but sometimes helpful. When a girl group did a spiritless rendition of "Ben," some high school girls behind me sang along and cut them, but when a Curtis Mayfield lookalike began to falter on "If Loving You Is Wrong," shouts from the audience roused him into a credible climax.

I went to the Apollo as a white person who grew up on black music but has related primarily to white music for years. My problem is that I enjoy white music less and less. Only recently have I found myself enjoying black music more and more, but I figure it's about time. After all, just about any white popular music worth hearing owes a large debt to black music.

If you happen to be black, you probably agree, but if you're white this assertion may make you uncomfortable. Black music is okay, but it's not your thing. You gave at the office, and now you'd like to sit home and enjoy your stereo in peace. Believe me, I understand. For most of the Nixon era I've tried to stay with black music, but it's been a struggle. In my current mood, however, I find myself returning excitedly to records I once dismissed, overlooking their gaffes and marveling at the success of experiments that used to seem dubious.

To me, this feels like virtue rewarded. I always considered my struggle with black music awkwardly moralistic, the white guilt trip, but as usual the real issue turned out to be aesthetic. To be blunt, black music is better. The apparent strength of white music in whatever present always seems to deteriorate. Stephen Collins Foster preferred his sentimental ballads to his "Ethiopian songs," and Paul Whiteman thought that he was doing the Muse a favor by whitening the "discordant jazz, which sprang into existence . . . from nowhere in particular," but we remember "My Old Kentucky Home," not "Poor Drooping Maiden," and listen to King Oliver while relegating Whiteman's music to the gramophone museum.

This time, though it really seemed as if we'd escaped fate. Only a year ago, the white rock fan who dismissed what was judiciously referred to as "the soul sounds"--as if only a stylistic preference, not a race or a culture, was involved--had some credible arguments. We know the wheezing pop of the early '50s was cured by that shot of rhythm-and-blues because R&B was realistic instead of sentimental, idiosyncratic instead of mass-produced, free of show biz nonsense, and rooted in a genuine community. But by the late '60s it was soul music, which was to R&B and gospel what black power was to civil rights, that seemed unrealistic, artificial and showy, although the paradox was that it sounded worst when it tried to assimilate white modes. The excesses of the soul myth proved that black people were far from immune to the pretentious floundering that so often accompanies new consciousness.

In contrast the best white music--not that déclassé AM bubblegum, but what was then called underground even though it was the staple of an entire industry--was the voice of a youth subculture that had reached full flower after a dozen years of nurture. It was vital, sensual and real, and not only that, it boogied.

But in retrospect some of this music already seems empty, as does the utopian promise of its community. Apparently, one thing you can't expect of a culture predicated on youth is staying power, which is exactly what you can expect of the culture of black Americans, who have specialized in enduring. If I read the statistics correctly, enduring is all a disgraceful percentage of them will ever have the opportunity to do, but for a visible minority, prospects are better for the first time in history, and this minority is prepared--culturally, psychologically and ethnically--to capitalize. Black Americans have both learned from their mistakes and proved that what looked like a mistake was often the truth. They anticipate no utopia, so they won't expire of disillusionment when one doesn't arrive. Understandably, the catchword for their music is not "boogie." The one I hear most often is to the point: "Sing it!"

This sort of encouragement typifies an artist-audience relationship that is in turn a perfect example of the anti-utopian black-consciousness view of brotherhood. For every song about black unity, there is another warning against the smiling faces of the back-stabbers--the black audience believes in love as much as the flower children ever did, but they learned early that brother-brother-brother can be so much shuck and jive. To them, love means knowing how to say you're sorry. The amateur show crowd really wants each performer to be another James Brown, because every James Brown means that more black people will do something more than endure. But they know that polite respect will not prepare a performer for the world outside Harlem, which in its way is even harder on black people than Harlem is.

For black pride is not confined to Harlem. Black people want to succeed where the heaviest power is and they believe they can do it without succumbing to the man's values. A white rock audience could never support an amateur show. The whole pretense of white music is a laid-back amateurism that eschews competition with other supposed amateurs on the surface and envies their professionalism underneath. Things have gone so far in this country that the most sensitive white kids are literally ashamed to compete. They know what disastrous consequences white victory has had--especially for the defeated, of course, but also for the victorious, sometimes including their own parents. In contrast, black people, who identify with the defeated, have no qualms about succeeding. After all, they're not destroying Hanoi.

Thursday night I went to see Jerry Butler at the Copacabana. Butler is a big-beat ballad singer from the '50s who like so many veteran artists--from Curtis Mayfield, who used to back Butler in the Impressions and is now America's most superfly singer-songwriter, to Diana Ross, who has made the transition to '70s superstardom so much more flexibly than any white '60s rock star--has evolved and endured. After developing a faintly jazzy style with the production help of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in the late '60s, he has become a super-cool club performer, as ideal as anyone for the Copa, another faltering music showcase. He recalled how in 1959 he beat some back pay out of the Apollo so that he could come back downtown and see Nat Cole. It must have been quite a sacrifice--as he told one ringsider--for the price of a steak at the Copa you could buy a ranch.

The white people who were eating those steaks at the Copa looked almost as if they didn't control their own expense accounts, but the blacks appeared comfortable. Maybe they felt they were collecting back dues. Maybe only those who haven't participated in making this country as powerful as it is can live easily with the benefits of that power. That extends to the music itself. For years, white musicians have been innovators on popular music's crucial technological frontier, but it is suddenly a black man, Stevie Wonder, who has suddenly emerged as king of the synthesizer on "Superstition," and a black group, the Temptations, which has utilized some of the greatest wah-wah work in history on "Papa Was a Rolling Stone."

It's shouldn't be surprising that both these songs are enduring examples of what once sounded like the most forgettable phase in all black music history, Motown politico-psychedelic. In three years the Tempts have moved on up from their psychedelic shack to the harrowing truths of the atomized family, while Wonder has simply put together a perfect song about a subject that is almost new. His warning can serve as the theme of all modern black pop: "If you believe in things that you don't understand/Then you suffer."

Of course, this warning is not directed primarily at me. Like most black singers, Wonder wants to hit the white audience, but not be aiming at it. That was okay for the rock and roll of the past, but at the moment it doesn't seem honest. He sings for his own and personally, I feel privileged to listen in. Music has always been survival training for me, only now it's black people who seem to have some notion of how to survive the bleak-looking years to come, how to feel both happy and responsible, how to love my brother without being taken by him, and above all how to endure. For what's most amazing is how many of the most vital black artists of today have already been making music for 10 or 15 years. White rock reveled in its youth, but it's not getting any younger, and while it continues to produce some great music, on the whole it is beginning to dodder without the grace of age. It sounds to me that if it's to survive, it will have to learn from the source all over again.

N'day, Jan. 14, 1973