Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Some Guys

By mid-May, I knew what the big rock and roll event of the third week of June was going to be: Tom Robinson at the Bottom Line. Capitol/EMI had been preparing Robinson's assault on New York since last fall, when the Tom Robinson Band's first English release became an instant hit over there. "2-4-6-8 Motorway," it was called, and it earned its title for me by transforming a hectic Saturday-morning drive from the Pennines to London into a post-industrial epiphany. The football-cheer hook and marching-as-to-war beat of this robust car song were so English they made Johnny Rotten sound like Johnny Cash, but its rock and roll universality was as pure as Chuck Berry's. Just as important, Capitol was undaunted when air radio classic barely dented FM in the States. There'd be others. The Sex Pistols were gone forever, but the company wasn't gonna bollocks this one.

I mention the Pistols because they're there. The only rock act signed by EMI in the eight months following the label's S.P. purge, the Tom Robinson Band was consciously postpunk--not anti or un, post. I don't mean "power pop," either, although the single made plain their respect for the lucid arrangement, the articulated vocal, the catchy approach. I mean they knew they could risk simpler music than had been fashionable two years before because the punks got there first, and that the same went for a more militant social stance.

To EMI, this must have seemed even riskier, because rather than copping to the reactive politics of punk, Robinson expressed a positive ideology. Where Johnny Rotten might dismiss prejudice against blacks as stupid and disgusting, Robinson would identify it as racism and speak out against the abstraction. Not many rock and rollers go in for even such modest intellectualizing, not if they're attuned to the colloquial concreteness that puts the music across. But in the wake of punk Robinson could present himself as an activist and advocate who liked to think. He wanted to be a star, all right--he shared a manager with Pink Floyd. But his logo was an upraised fist, and almost every one of his songs had an overtly political theme--even "2-4-6-8," Robinson told interviewers, took its chorus from a gay rights chant and its verse from a flirtation between a male trucker and male motorcyclist.

Robinson's homosexuality is as straightforward as the rest of his radical identity. He's been out since 1971 or 1972, but only when he began doing volunteer work for London's Gay Switchboard did he really begin to get politics. A solicitor's son born in 1950 who spent his late teens and early twenties in a "school for maladjusted children," Robinson's political focus is backlash--the sort of backlash that's bound to get a gay who once believed coming out would solve his problems. "Glad To Be Gay," follow-up to "2-4-6-8", was on a live EP called TRB-Rising Free; it was a proud, sardonic singalong that revised a more cheerful coming-out song from Robinson's pollyanna days in the gay movement, and went top 20 in England, where crowds of hetero youths would lustily shout out the chorus. Many of the punks I talked to last fall singled out Robinson as a new artist they admired. He was saying what he believed.

The problem with this admirable coalition of punks, gays, and politicos was that it couldn't create a big rock and roll event by itself, because pop culture is supposed to reach beyond deserving interest groups. But rarely will any such interest group, much less three at once, enjoy the support of a major record company and--here's what was really special--a notoriously cautious "alternative" radio outlet. This last was WNEW-FM, and not just old reliable Vin Scelsa and new remarkable Meg Griffin, either--Scott Muni himself was a fan, beguiled by a chance to be hip, or by Robinson's cheerful charm, or perhaps by the music itself. In this year of Anita Bryant it was a shot in the arm to turn on the radio and hear Robinson's intelligent voice strafing homophobe hypocrites from the World Health Organization to your neighborhood queer-basher. Robinson's two nights at the Bottom Line sold out way in advance. I couldn't recall the last time a new performer with outfront politics had created such a stir. He wasn't just getting punks, gays, and politicos--he was getting real people. This was history.

Enter the Rolling Stones.

This hasn't been the best of decades for the Rolling Stones. Sure they've secured their once-controversial reputation as the greatest rock and roll band of all time-forming their own label, touring, triumphantly, even recording what many (including me) consider their greatest album, Exile on Main Street. Nevertheless, they've been going downhill for five or six years now, and despite reassurances from the big media and the balance sheet, they're worried. The mortality that haunts a former youth music is doubly dire for a narcissist like Mick, and even a cynic like Mick must entertain second thoughts about the company he's kept since hooking up with Ahmet and Bianca. If you play with decadence long enough, you start to decay--or at least your brain softens. When Jagger admitted to Jonathan Cott in Rolling Stone that recent Stones albums have "lacked direction," that's presumably what he meant.

On the other hand, maybe he just didn't want to come out and say they were shitty. After all, Goat's Head Soup and It's Only Rock 'n Roll were not without redeeming cuts, even if these sound quite quirkish now, and while the dense rhythmic textures of Black and Blue haven't led anywhere, they were interesting enough in themselves. Last year's live album had its defenders, too. For me, though, Love You Live was where the Stones came audibly apart, starting with the very first bars--which happened to be from Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, better than Zarathrustra but not by much. This was lazy, unfocussed, desperately mannered music that like all arena rock attempted to make up in obvious gestures what it lacked in subtlety and feeling. The band itself was okay, despite occasional intrusions by Billy Preston and the inability of Ron Wood to fill solo space designed for the more accomplished if less personable Mick Taylor. But the old material sounded old and the new material sounded bad. There were no alternate arrangements that equaled, say, "Live with Me" on Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! And for the most part Jagger was a disgrace. Once his slurs had teased, made jokes, held out double meanings; now his refusal to pronounce final dentals--the "good" and "should" of "Brown Sugar," for example--conveyed bored, arrogant indolence, as if he couldn't be bothered hoisting his tongue to the roof of his mouth. His cries of "oo-oo-oo" and "awri-i" were self-parody without humor. This was an entertainer doing a job that just didn't get him off the way it once had, a job that got harder every time out.

Add to this dispassionate aesthetic judgment Mick's gossip-column activities and the explosion of young bands playing real rock and roll and you will understand why I didn't start marking up my calendar when the Stones announced a summer tour. A round of profit-taking just in case Keith got sent up for heroin, that was the way I figured it. Nor did I expect much of the accompanying album, not even after "Miss You" turned out to be one of those "Angie"-type slow songs that have been a strength of the mature Stones, and not even after the slow song proved fast enough to spawn a convincing 8:36-minute disco disc. The flip, after all, was Mick doping one of his hyper-conscious ethnic comedy routines, drawling on about "far away eyes" in an ignorant English takeoff on a Bakersfield redneck. This was before Jagger and Cott's searching, playful conversation was published, and I associated "Far Away Eyes" with a less savory interchange between Jagger and Jim Jerome of People. In the Jerome interview, done around the time Love You Live was released but only printed in last month's Oui, Jagger, drunk on sake, shifted emphases and accents and personas in a whirlpool of put-ons. This was the terminal irony of someone who had lost hold of his own cynicism, someone who'd been projecting images of self-knowledge/self-doubt for so long that the self itself had finally slipped away.

I got the new Stones album on a deadline Monday that left me so bushed I put on side two first, which is against my religion. The first cut was "Far Away Eyes," and as I lay there in a mild natural stupor I noticed that I liked it. I could hear Gram Parsons effects applied to Jagger's redneck protagonist, a gently waggish character gently conceived; there with humor in the sung, lyric chorus and pathos in the spoken, parodic verse. Then came "Respectable," the likes of which the Stones hadn't attempted since Between the Buttons, and a mournful Keith Richard feature that was almost as fast as "Happy," and a slower one that pleased even if it didn't impress, and an impressive riff song with a throwaway melody and a lot of funny throwaway rhymes about New York City. My God--I'd enjoyed every cut. I raised myself from the couch and turned the record over right away. After a hard day at the office, this is also against my religion.

I liked side one less--didn't think the mock stereotyping of "Some Girls," the album's signature piece, was funny or entirely mock--and found myself playing both sides all the time. It had been quite a while since a new record had cut so deeply into my professional listening time. I began to pay attention to rumors of local stops on a tour that wasn't scheduled to come closer than Philadelphia. But I didn't pursue them too hard. Whether these theatre gigs were strictly for the fans, as the Stones' friends reported, or strictly for the in crowd, as their enemies charged, I figured I'd get in without being pushy or I wouldn't get in at all. For the Ramones at CBGB or the 1976 World Series I have pulled rank and slept on line and contended with my fellow mob. But though I loved Some Girls--by then I was forcing my friends to sit there and listen, which hadn't happened with a Stones album since Let It Bleed--the memory that lingered from 1975 was of Mick scampering desperately up and down a malfunctioning stage ramp at the Garden, reduced from the epitome of live rock and roll to a fading decathlon champion who communicated by semaphore.

Nevertheless, something was going on here--the third week of June was upon me and my thoughts were not turning to Tom Robinson. Robinson's album, Power in the Darkness, was one of the competent-to-good musical endeavors Some Girls had displaced, but with an interview on tap I began playing it again. As product, it exemplified Robinson's penchant for good works, for in addition to a full 10-song LP it included a seven-song bonus record comprising "2-4-6-8 Motorway," TRB-Rising Free, and two B sides. "Glad To Be Gay," "2-4-6-8," and a music-hall number called "Martin"--about the rewards and ambiguities of male-to-male friendship--was each flat-out wonderful in its own way, and "Winter of '79" was in a league with "For What It's Worth," only much less coy. But musically the songs were rather foursquare, not clever enough for catchy pop nor unrelenting enough for hard rock, and Danny Kustow's guitar breaks sold even the guitar-break crowd short. The lyrics were foursquare, too, programmatic and preachy at their occasional worst and rarely suggesting that politics involves internal contradictions as well as oppression. Would the Clash or Arlo Guthrie ever dare simple-mindedness on the order of "If left is right then right it wrong/You'd better decide what side you're on"? Not in the world you and me live in.

Strangely enough, the person who complains hardest about that particular offense to reason is Robinson himself. This was a man who welcomed feminist complaints about condescension in "Right On Sister" out of sheer dialectical principle; his politics were so good he'd even outline his own limitations for you. Like me, he wondered in retrospect whether it wouldn't have been wiser to hold off "2-4-6-8" until a core audience had been consolidated, than take the world with a hit. And like anyone with a pinch of sense, he was of several minds about political songwriting, so that the usual conundrums lurked behind most of what we said: What's more important, to describe what you know or inspire effective action? Is it possible to inspire genuinely effective action if you write around the messier parts of what you know? Is it possible for a musician to inspire action in any case?

Robinson realizes that all he can achieve is bits of input, but he's also aware that bits add up, which is better than subtracting. He's proud of the huge Rock Against Racism rally that preceded electoral setbacks for the National Front, and humble about how hard it will be to organize against the more insidious reaction of the good old Conservative Party. So he remains of several minds. He regards "Winter of '79"--in which the epochal repression of that season is recalled from some further future as a hard but by no means (compare David Bowie, Black Sabbath) decisive or apocalyptic piece of history: politics is struggle, life continues--as his most satisfactory song. He hopes to write others of comparable complexity. But he doesn't want to go too far: "You become impotent as a songwriter, because you can't say anything clearly any more if you disappear up your own asshole worrying about it."

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday the Stones' p.r. people proffered one ticket for the Capitol in Passaic that night, and I stood up my wife to go. The show, scheduled to begin at 8, didn't go on until after 9, and I whiled away the interlude asking people how they'd come by their seats. I'd heard that many tickets had been sold in local bars and record stores, but, aside from the two guys whose buddy had happened to be in the Harmony Hut in Wayne when the sign went up, talked to no one who'd gotten in that way. Instead I found employees of Sound companies and college booking agencies, a mechanic at the Passaic police station, two kids who'd gotten theirs from a friend arrested on a drug charge, someone whose brother was "a big wheel," someone else who'd scalped an upfront pair from a ticket agent for "over $200," quite a few sticklers for reportorial courtesy, and record-bizzers fucking galore. The place was like a convention. I wouldn't say these weren't Rolling Stones fans, but I'd guess that their zeal was at least as questionable as mine and that, like me, many of the most zealous had been overexposed to live music. I had joined the in crowd at last, yet somehow I didn't feel honored.

Etta James's apologetic set did not improve my mood, and when the Stones opened with "Let It Rock" my ass was willing but my spirit weak. I stood because everyone was standing, and averted my eyes as Mick thrashed about in frenzied simulated stimulation. But I was sustained by the sight of sixth Stone lan Stewart bashing his piano and re-bop king Charlie Watts beating his drums. Captured by Stewart's Johnnie Johnson barrelhouse riffs, I entertained my first doubts about the hardnosed media smarts that forced the blokeish-looking pianist to the sidelines of the group in 1963; analyzing Watts's driving, jazz-derived figures, I recognized my prejudices against swing in rock and roll. Listening to the music through those two guys was like discovering the two artisans who'd really put the cathedral together, and had Bill Wyman been better mixed, I'm sure he would have made three.

Cynics claim, no doubt with some justice, that the tour is basically high-powered promo for the new product, and for that I soon became grateful. Somewhat sick at heart, I had continued to contemplate lan and Charlie through "All Down the Line" and "Honky Tonk Women" and "Starfucker," the throwaway rocker that survives as the most standard Stones standard since Exile, and which dropped the Passaic onlookers to their seats. But on the first song from Some Girls, "When the Whip Comes Down," the music lost its mechanical aura--through the next eight selections, seven more from Some Girls plus "Love in Vain," it gathered power and conviction. Suddenly Jagger seemed interested in what he was doing. It would be going too far to call it sincerity, but there was an ingenuous enthusiasm to his performance that I'd previously encountered only in a callower version on the early albums. By omitting "Some Girls," the one new lyric that demands an "ironic" reading, he remained consistent, projecting both anger and vulnerability with gratifying immediacy. Equally important, the guitar that he played on most of these songs contained him physically, kept his hands occupied so that he couldn't go looking for trouble while the band played on. Instead, his restless intensity was channeled through his vocal cords. At least on the new songs, the Stones were doing something new.

Carried forward on this music, I rose with the crowd for a raucous "Sweet Little Sixteen" and was content to stay up through "Tumbling Dice" (although Mick was no Linda), Happy" (although Keith was no Keith), "Brown Sugar" (vaguely offputting), and "Jumping Jack Flash" (a proper climax). The only major disappointment was the mumbled lyric on "Street Fighting Man," the encore, and while I stick with the judgment I returned to jealous acquaintances--"quite good"--I will add that this was the most revelatory of the eight Stones concerts I've seen.

Granted that I preferred, the audience at the Palladium gig of five nights later--although a good many extra tickets from the WNEW postcard lottery were scalped by amateurs for a less than shocking median price of $40, at least they were scalped on the street to other amateurs. But perhaps because I was put in the loge with the goddam in crowd (Walter Becker left early, as did Hall, or was that Oates?; Paul McCartney stayed), not even my wife, who spent most of the concert diddybopping in the aisles, could make the show new for me the way the first one had been. The high spot actually preceded the Stones' set, when Mick did a dancey duet with new Rolling Stones Records signee Peter Tosh on the Temptations' "Don't Look Back," and I didn't get it when Jagger started waving his cock through his polyurethane pants--with both hands yet, what showmanship. Anyway, the third time through any set, drawbacks begin to come clear.

The second time had been Saturday at JFK Memorial Stadium in Philadelphia along with some 100,000 definitively amateur fans. My side location was about as far from the stage as the deepest reaches of Madison Square Garden, and a good half of the crowd was even worse off. I'm informed that the sound was quite adequate 40 yards downfield from the music, but where I was it was barely loud enough to qualify as rock and roll. Mick was once again held in check by the guitar, and the relative wit and elegance of his most hyperkinetic moves was put in perspective by the dull attitudinizing of Lou Gramm of Foreigner, the opener. This didn't matter much, though, and if it's true that Mick was feverish and off form that day, that doesn't matter either. Rock and roll can't be perceived through binoculars. The crowd was up well past "Starfucker" anyway, but they seemed to be flying on automatic pilot.

Meanwhile, the big rock and roll event of the third week of June proceeded apace, with WNEW preparing to broadcast Robinson's Thursday Bottom Line debut even as it cut of its deal for the Stones tix. That night the club was jammed to the aisles with a crowd that was above all . . . straight, in the nonsexual sense. Even the record-bizzers were minimally flashy, and they fit right in with gays who were neither glitter queens nor shorthaired neatnicks and punks with nostrils and brain pans intact and (I'm guessing) politicos who looked like schoolteachers and, of course, real people. Despite his sly, cheery, winning stage manner, Robinson couldn't conceal his nervousness. But this crowd didn't care. They hailed one protest song after another, and nearly went berserk when Robinson paid his respects to geography by substituting "New York police" for "British police" in the first line of "Glad To Be Gay." Nor were the record pros less enthusiastic the than their fellow fans--I've heard lots of corporate applause, and this was different.

All this surprised me a little, especially the biz part, because my experience of bizzers is that their politics stop at the door to the a&r department. The rationalization, I'm sure, was that TRB is good old commercial rock and roll; as WNEW's Richard Near assured a his listeners, "This is not political--it's a musical trip." But this time I think the realist was Vln Scelsa, who introduced Robinson with some heartfelt praise for songs about things that mattered, an approbation I'm certain this audience shared. For the pros, it was enough that (unlike the punks) Robinson espoused the principles of music that sells, even if there was only one "2-4-6-8" in his kit so far. Given that orthodoxy, their passion was inflamed by his desire to change the world. Maybe they were feeling scared, maybe they were feeling guilty, maybe they were feeling nostalgic for their own idealism, or maybe they had never abandoned that idealism, but they wanted to help change the world.

Good for them. and so do I. Nevertheless, I couldn't escape the feeling that, spiritually, Tom Robinson was an exceptionally hard-rocking folkie. No matter what his principle, the words took priority. This wasn't necessarily because the musical talent wasn't there--the key was that the band's conceptual inspiration was fundamentally verbal. Of course, the same was true of Elvis Costello less than a year ago, before the Attractions--a band identical in lineup and basic an attack to the TRB--took over his soul. Maybe Robinson's new keyboard man, Nick Plytas, a veteran of a worthy post-pub group called Roogalator, can work a similar conversion, get something more explosive than those arbitrary rolls out of Dolpin Taylor and spur Danny Kustow to find licks as funny and sharp and spontaneous as his tough-guy stage poses. Robinson's got reason to believe.

Which leads us to the question: What was the big rock and roll event of the third week of June? My surprise answer: There were two. For music, Television at the Bottom Line Sunday, first set. Ficca and Smith are hardly Watts and Wyman, and Tom Verlaine is worlds from the singer Jagger can be--at the Palladium, the emotional twists from "Love in Vain" to "Beast of Burden" (that slower one that didn't impress me) to "Shattered" took on a resonance and directness that up to now Jagger has barely played with. But Television's syntheses promise a future the Stones can no longer imagine, and when their music comes together they're more exciting than the Stones, not only in theory but in the physical/psychological fact. For culture, though, I'll take the last four songs by Bob Marley at the Garden the following Saturday. It took us so long to escape the Stones' scene in Philly that four songs was all we caught, but maybe it was better that way, because it thrust us into the middle of a sweaty revelry that the most passionate Rock Against Racism event would be hard-pressed to approach. Not that swaying to "Kaya" will end war in Babylon--or begin it, if that's your analysis. But the biracial spontaneity of the crowd was a political event in itself.

The Stones and the TRB, however, also left me with wonderful memories, some of them preserved on plastic.

In the end, I didn't think the musical gains of the two Stones theatre concerts I saw justified their exclusivity, especially if debacles like Philadelphia are part of the deal. Better they should do like Bob Marley and settle for the Garden. But at least temporarily they seem to have sensed that irony is a perilous mode in this bitter time. It's significant, too, that they're not trying to write songs that will trigger new jumping-jack climaxes, because that mode seems less and less natural for them as well. There is a wonderful looseness to Some Girls that redeems (perhaps even requires) its sloppy solos and half-finished lyrics. The Stones aren't going to change the world any more, not even unintentionally, but at least they prove that a bunch of old pros can have fun. The TRB have their own future. After their show I went home to find words for the B plus I was finally convinced their album deserved. To my amazement, one song after another began to kick in for the first time. Not always real hard, and not without the problems I've explained, but enough. Good record. They may yet change the world, intentionally. Which would make that June gig a very big rock and roll event indeed.

Village Voice, July 10, 1978