Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Gap Again

In 1964, in Berkeley, a young radical named Jack Weinberg originated a slogan that can be described as deathless--it has endured five years, after all--even though it is beginning to sound slightly quaint when quoted whole: "Never trust anyone over 30." It was a brave thing for a mortal to say, for Weinberg must be pushing 30 himself by now. He ran for mayor a few years ago. I wonder if at his back he often hears all those young political heads on Telegraph Avenue accusing Peace & Freedom of reformism.

I was in Berkeley in 1964 myself, age 22, along with my typewriter, a 1950 Plymouth, a tiny transistor radio, and many devotees of the acoustic guitar. The typewriter and the folk freaks were my enemies, the radio and the car--equipped with a radio of its own, of course--my allies, and as the evening progressed more quickly than my novel I would often take long walks with the radio or drive down to Oakland to play the pinball machines and listen to the jukebox. As it had during high school in the '50s and again in the year following my graduation from college in 1962, rock and roll provided spiritual sustenance. It also distinguished me from my fellows, like a birthmark. Rock that summer was Beatlemania and Motown and a song by some vanished local group called, yes, "Cock of the World," for which I would happily pay ten bucks today. It was not Little Willie John, dead now, who was a regular at a ghetto blues bar, nor the Beach Boys at the Oakland Coliseum, not even the Beatles at the Cow Palace. And it wasn't a record collection. It was radio, Top 40 radio, soul radio.

The sentiment is deliberate: it dates me. Weinberg's heirs have moved the dividing line down to 25 and everything is happening at the Fillmore East, where it has all somehow ended--or not ended, for it isn't over yet, I hope; say landed--at white blues. In 1964, even 1967, that would have sounded like a victory. When I first heard about Cream, before they'd released any records here, 'I was overjoyed that "the three best blues musicians in England" had formed a group, because I wanted there to be good rock for ever and ever, and what made rock good, I believed, was its "blues roots." Not quite.

Even though Cream was a fine band--if not quite a supernatural as is believed--and blues is a great music, and even though both share an obvious continuum with rock and roll, the distinctions are more important than the congruences. What made pre-Dylan (pre-San Francisco? pre-"Pepper"? pre-Cream? pre-heavy?) rock so exciting was the way its own commercial usages, designed to disseminate an easy-to-perform (hence easy-to-manipulate) music over the radio to white adolescents, were exploited by individual artists (or combines) for uses of their own. The covert sexuality, the know-nothing politics, the subliterate sentimental gimmicky compact kineticism of the typical hit record constituted an appealing frame. That frame could serve as a frame is supposed to serve, as a guide, but it could also be distorted, used for camouflage, perceived from subversive and/or enlightened vantages, even broken altogether. In any case, rock was perceived by what remained of its first generation of fans in an ironic histoircal and social context. Many hits--the Ikettes' "Peaches and Cream," say, or Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman"--succeeded within the frame, in which case the idea that a commercial convenience could afford such aesthetic pleasure was itself an additional pleasure. Other hits defied the frame--like Tommy Tucker's "Hi-Heel Sneakers" (too funky) or the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" (you know)--and dazzled us with strength or wit.

Since rock is always praised for its directness, the process I just described may seem absurdly rarefied. Most certainly, it does become fatuous in the absence of good raw material, and because it is dependent on surprise it doesn't work the same way with artists who are overtly serious. But while all good heads were trying to make hit singles, AM radio was a rich source. It would be silly for even the staunchest AM fan--that's me--to claim it is as good a source now. Country-western is the new target for our frustrated affections, though it is definitely a ricochet romance and likely to be one-sided. (Will the Flying Burrito Brothers ever play the Grand Old Opry? Tune in next year . . . ) It is significant that the c&w boomlet is attracting the kind of musician who was always into structure and songwriting--working within and against the frame--and the kind of fan who has always appreciated the ironies of his ardor.

Almost by definition, this sort of rockhead must have a sense of the traditions of the music and of how they relate to the arts in general. He is one more manifestation of the various generation gaps that are opening up among the under-30s, and even the under-25s. If there ever was a youth movement, it was held together by rock and roll: everyone from 12 to 27 listened to the same music. But like all American radical movements, the YM is feeling the strain of sectarianism. Since every fan and every performer is to some extent eclectic, strict boundary lines can be misleading; nevertheless, it is possible to draw a rough diagram. The eight-to-14s dig the Ohio Express and Tommy James and Marvin Gaye and Derek, all of whom they hear on WABC, for which they are blamed, though the real villains are the housewives. (I ought to add that I like, in varying degrees, all of the performers I've listed. Wayne Newton turns me off.) The old guys,like me and maybe you, began with Alan Freed and don't like to admit that they ever gave up. It's easy for those of us with a certain edge of hip to dig or at least tolerate the teenies, who are simple and harmless. It is not so easy to get with the middle generation, the one responsible for all the weightier abominations on the LP charts and all the decibels at the Fillmore East. The rule about these things is that it is impossible to abide someone who is one step less sophisticated than yourself. We can't stand the Iron Butterfly and they can't stand "Indian Giver" and "Crimson and Clover."

I say "we" because I know that most of my rockhead friends--especially, but not exclusively, writers--have dissociated themselves from the mainstream rock audience, the audience which supports the music economically and emotionally, and which has come to demand instrumental improvisation almost exclusively. Most often, this improvisation takes place in a blues context (though those groups that do not depend on blues--like the Pentagle and the Mothers--are ususally the most inventive). Of the 15 acts I caught at the Fillmore last month, only four--Rhinoceros, Janis Joplin, Slim Harpo, and Sam and Dave--concentrated on songs instead of numbers. Rhinoceros is a self-styled hard-rock supergroup. I prefer Three Dog Night in the same bag, but they were good and fairly well received. Janis comes out of blues and is moving toward a Memphis jazz thing; for the next year, she will get standing ovations just for existing and by then she may well be as great a middle-range singer as she was a screamer. Slim Harpo is a blues original, not to say relic. Sam and Dave, a soul duo, may be the best live act in the business. They were brought on as a last-minute replacement for Jeff Beck and drew only half a house, which greeted them unenthusiastically and was on its feet cheering by the end of the show. Their failiure to draw is a good indication of how parochial white blues fans are. They want to see only blues. Or do they?

Blues, remember, began as a vocal music, with the instrumental counterpoint of call-and-response reinforcing or accenting the singer's interpretation of the lyric. Although instruments gradually became more important, it really wasn't until B.B. King mastered both the amplifier and the language of bebop that a basically instrumental blues of the sort all the white groups play became possible. Only B.B. (his friends call him B. but I just can't come on that uppity) is a singer first; even on a long solo he does not so much play his guitar as speak through it. This is not quite as true of other black musicians, mostly because B.B. is a great genius while Buddy Guy is only a talent. But with a few exceptions the white musicians doen't even enter the competition--their playing relates to the words only by juxtaposition. This is not to say that the whites are necessarily poorer technicians, only that they excel in a way that isn't essential to blues. Nor is the the question of who is more soulful relevant, nor the related one of whether a white man can relate to the natural poetry of black experience. Since my strictures usually apply even to non-imitative blues written by whites (if that's possible-there is a sense, I suspect, in which the aab line form is itself integrally black) I stand mute on both issues.

No--it is clear that white musicians dig blues because of its potential for instrumental expansion. With the important exception of Paul Butterfield, white blues singers either make no serious attempt at lyrical interpretation or try and fail. Vocals are decoration, signposts that say: "This here is blues." No wonder the guitarists doen't relate to the lyrics. Then there is a further complication. White blues bands are so heavily amplified that improvisational articulation--the nuance we customarily expect of improvisers, even the most raucous new-thing hornmen--is improssible. Expressiveness is exchanged for power, and no one has yet found a way to control that power in a personal way; instead, whatever way the power comes out is identified with the person playing. And so the white bluesman tends to be obscured by his own machines; only a few--Butterfield, Bishop, Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, one or two others--have the kind of presence that every lowdown black moaner comes by automatically.

I have delivered the classic indictment, and I stand by it. White blues is bad blues, bad improvisation and even bad hero-mongering. Itis, as so many of my contemporaries complain, just a lot of noise. Yet isn't that exactly what our parents said about rock and roll in 1956? I used to think white blues was all about racial role, a wishful return to a time when there were real primitives to emulate. I still think that's part of it. But now I am convinced that sheer power is the heart of the message. Where else is it possible to find the kind of crude energy we found in rock and roll ten years ago?

If the best black musicians can be said to speak through their instruments, then the best white blues singers--my nominees are Alvin Lee and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin (Butterfield is another bag)--play their voices, providing a fleshly parallel for all that electricity. Plant's trick of matching Jimmy Page's guitar riffs note-for-note--well, almost note-for-note--epitomizes the process, as does Alvin Lee's habit of singing exactly what he's playing. By choice and necessity, the white bluesmen have refined the old form down to one overwhelming component: strength. The rhetoric of the white blues movement may refuse to admit it, but it's true, and all the Canned Heat-John Mayall attempts to really do blues are only distractions.

Mayall has his points. At the Fillmore recently, he announced a song he had never played publicly or recorded before, and of course got a good hand. Mayall looked down and said: "You're gullible, you are." He's right. There's a lot of bullshit happening at the Fillmore East. But there's also something real there, and the fact that I don't need it as much as the kids only proves that I'm not a kid any more.

P.S. Anybody who digs energy the way I do should catch Sun Ra at Slugs' before his Monday night gig closes up on him again. He's been doing the starving artist thing in earnest for 15 years. His music isn't rock, but it sure is great, and a heavy dose of white blues set me up to hear it. I think Sun Ra is a lot better than blues. if you have some I.D. decide for yourself.

Village Voice, Mar. 3, 1969