Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Delaney & Bonnie & Friends Featuring Eric Clapton

It seems clear that the forthcoming tour-with-album of Delaney & Bonnie and their famous friends will be the first smash of 1970. Since prophetic accuracy has never been my strong point (I once predicted, somewhat wistfully to be sure, a long and happy future for John Fred and His Playboy Band), I take some pride in reminding everyone that I was there first. I was Calling "The Original Delaney & Bonnie" (on Elektra--the new record will be on Atco) a great album eight months ago, and in October, I included it among the 10 best albums of the previous year and named Bonnie Bramlett top female vocalist. I ought to add that I was not alone in these superlatives, though mine were a bit more superlative than most. There was hardly a rock writer in the country who didn't dig D&B&F. This filled me with alarm, since whenever a wide gap opens between audience and critics, there is at least a 50-50 chance that the critics are wrong. Why is it, I ask myself late at night, that while I spent 1969 expostulating over Delaney & Bonnie, Joe Cocker, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, most of you were freaking on Santana and Led Zeppelin?

Now, I don't have as much against these bands as might be imagined. In fact, I've never written anything deliberately nasty about Led Zep and am happy to admit that both "Whole Lotta Love" and "Evil Ways" sound great on WMCA. But I am sure that the claims of their enthusiasts--namely, that Carlos Santana and Jimmy Page are "great guitarists"--has even less to do with the success of these groups than their hit singles. My analysis is historical and begins with two figures: Jimi Hendrix, an innovative musician whose most important communicative strength was showmanship, and Eric Clapton, an even better musician who carried his own show (Ginger Baker) with him. Between them these men brought to fruition an idea whose time had come--musicianship, which within six months came to be identified with 10-minute solos and records far more monotonous than the rock of the '50s ever was. That is, it began with true (or at least sincere) guitar craftsmanship but quickly boiled down into a formula that mixed varying parts of agonized pseudo-spade singing, distorted blues riffs, and histrionic changes of pace and tone. You could still call it musicianship because that made it respectable, but it wasn't.

Of course, each band that succeeded with this formula had its own concept, an identifying characteristic that distinguished it from the others. Iron Butterfly was very slow and Ten Years After very fast. Jeff Beck capitalized on distortion and Santana on Latino rhythms. And Led Zeppelin simply out-heavied everyone, pitting Jimmy Page's repeated low-register fuzz riffs against the untiring freak intensity of Robert Plant's vocal. This trademark has only emerged clearly on the second album, and more and more I am coming to understand it as an artistic triumph. The first lp, subtler and more ambitious musically, wasn't as good, because subtlety defeated the effect. Musicianship, in other words, was really incidental to such music, but the music did have real strength and validity: a combination of showmanship and overwhelming physical force. Gosh, that almost sounds like rock and roll.

There are ways in which this music, which a conservative like Jaime Robbie Robertson will dismiss as "that noisy shit," can be said to attract a relatively political audience. Those kids may not be ideologues, but you don't need a urologist to know which way they're pissed off. The violent drama of a murderous technology which a group like Led Zeppelin enacts night after night obviously meshes with their anger. When Kip Cohen, the Fillmore East potentate who is now meditating transcendentally far from the feedback and automatic encores, compliments the Byrds' audience for its demeanor, he is only breathing a sign of relief that for one night, anyway, no one is going to rip the place off. The heavier nights on Second Avenue always contain that possibility. And while I would argue that from the most realistic radical perspective--the one which sees organizing as more right-on at this point in history than street-fighting--this is just as well, I must admit that it makes me uncomfortable to share an interest with the Maharishi. It's just like agreeing with the critics--I become wary of my own gentility.

Nonetheless, I can't sit happily through a set of that noisy shit. My tastes and temperament and sentiment all militate against it. And I'm fairly sure that the progenitors of this music, Hendrix and Clapton, feel the same. Certainly Hendrix has been bored with his own act for a year or two now. When he appeared with his so-called Band of Gypsies New Year's Eve, the old stage assurance was still serving him well, be he no longer played the psychedelic Uncle Tom. As for Clapton, I get the feeling that he is still trying to compensate for all the feverish overstatement of Cream.

The great discovery of Clapton-Bruno-Baker, I think, was that previously sacrosanct commercial boundaries could be breached with impunity: audiences were willing, even anxious, to endure long omni-directional solos. Whether they were following the musical logic (such as it was) or simply succumbing to the volume was, for a while, immaterial. But eventually Clapton must have realized that the most humane inclinations of his genius were not served by music which he himself understood to be ill-structured, harmonically simple-minded, and ultimately a bore. Commercial impunity was one thing, artistic impunity quite another. Perhaps I am giving him too much credit, but his short solos are such masterpieces of wit and concision, so startling and yet so relaxed, such fun, that I can't believe he could ever be taken in for long by his own pretensions. Just like most of his contemporaries, Eric Clapton loves rock and roll. Rock and roll is a vocal music, which is why Blind Faith centered around Stevie Winwood; it is also a carefully structured music, which is why Blind Faith failed. Although in its time it was rebellious enough, it has come to seem relatively tame compared to the music which Clapton himself inspired. All of which brings us to Delaney & Bonnie.

Make no mistake, Delaney & Bonnie are wonderful. They are what would happen to rock and roll if it were capable of growing up--maybe they are even what would happen to this country if it were capable of growing up. Their sound is so natural that although they are whites who sing black you don't blame them for it. Once you see them you understand that if plenty of white boys have come of age in rural Mississippi, like Delaney, there isn't another white girl in the country who can claim to have spent a weekend as an Ikette, like Bonnie. Those inflections belong to them--they are down-home, countrified (like Charley Pride?). You wonder why the same rough warmth doesn't enrich everyone's voice. Warmth is their specialty. Just like the teen heroes of yore, they sing mostly of love, but even though that love is quite physical, it has been weathered spiritually, radiating out in a kind of overflowing agape across the boundaries--and they have traditionally been commercial boundaries, too--of race and generation. They possess all the fun and energy of youth, and like most white Americans the y feel a little lucky just being alive. They are concerned socially, yes, but without anger or alienation--Delaney sings a beautiful song about the ghetto which ends as a hymn. And why not? That equanimity is a gift, but it is the gift of maturity, for Delaney & Bonnie are in their 30s with a family of their own.

Such virtues aren't easy too sell. So for a long time the critics and musicians were their core support. No one else knew what to do with them. They cut a record for Stax which wasn't released for a year, and their first tour drew an audience blank. A tour with Blind Faith seemed like a tremendous chance for exposure, and it was, but only because it exposed them to Eric Clapton, who suddenly found the antidote. Delaney & Bonnie were rock and roll originals and they had what he didn't It is certainly admirable for a superstar like Clapton to take second billing to two unknowns, but in terms of what Clapton feels about music right now it is also proper: his guitar is only a complement to human voice.

And so Delaney & Bonnie returned to the Fillmore East and sold out to an audience of Cream freaks. They got their standing ovation with two encores and they didn't quite earn it, because they didn't have to: star power was working for them. Cream's fans started out by responding to a sound that fit their own experience, but they inevitably transferred that response to the people who provoked it. And now one of those people is leading them away from their experience and into what he understands as his own--more mature and considered and (let us not forget) successful, less destructive. He is even providing the counter-culture with a sense of its own tradition--the set includes explicit tributes to Robert Johnson and Little Richard. I loved it, in a way, but felt strange amid all the knee-jerk applause the Little Richard medley received, and I wondered whether Eric Clapton, a great musician and a fine human being, was in the course of defusing righteous anger or simply placing it in a workable context, and I thought of Johnny Cash and of Richard Goldstein's phrase for the '70s, "the new '50s." It may seem willful to close a musical analysis with vague political speculations, but the fact remains that anyone who touches a million young people is political by definition, and we can't know what that means until it happens. I told you that prophetic accuracy wasn't my strong point. Give peace a chance, as Eric was singing in Toronto a few months ago. Who can tell the leaders from parking meters?

Village Voice, Feb. 12, 1970