Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Incredibly Trivial Music

The theory of convolutions . . . was generally explained by reference to the game of Odd or Even. You have held an even number of beans or grains of corn in your hand; you have won; therefore you take an even number again. That is the simplest argument by analogy; it is no convolution at all. But if you say to yourself, "I had an even number before and won; my opponent will expect me to have an even number again; therefore I'll take an odd number," you have entered the First Convolution. If you say, "Since I won with an even number before, my opponent will expect me to try to fool him by having an odd number this time; therefore I'll be even," you are Second Convolution. The process seems capable of indefinite extension; it can be applied, moreover, to any form of art, so long as one is less interested in what one says than in one's ability to outwit an audience.

--Malcolm Cowley
Exile's Return

I've been citing this passage (roman mine) ever since Ellen Willis hipped me to it in the '60s, and it's much older. Exile's Return, the finest reflection on bohemia ever written, was published in 1934, and the theory itself dates back not to Paris in the '20s but to Pittsburgh before "the war," where it was devised by the arty crowd Cowley hung with in high school. He goes on to explain that the series has a "practical limit." First you read Oscar Wilde because nobody else knows who he is; then, as others achieve First Convolution, you turn on Wilde and proceed to Schnitzler, only to "`go beyond' him without ever understanding what he has to say." It keeps building--Mencken, Huneker, Maugham, Laforgue--but in the end you have nowhere to go. Your only recourse is "being exactly like everybody else," talking about cars and baseball and girls while remaining cognizant of your superiority to those who haven't traversed the convolutions. You are 18.

Sound familiar? You bet. Half a century on, this reactive process--which to be fair is quintessentially journalistic as well as bohemian, one reason some of us try to avoid telling readers what's "hot"--was so pervasive that its latest manifestation(s) had achieved the status of a world-historical phenomenon, or label: postmodernism, the telltale prefix a convolution all by itself. At around the same time, V. Vale went beyond the San Francisco punkzine Search and Destroy to assemble his RE/Search collections of q&a's with avant-garde weirdos. In retrospect, the first few numbers seem tamely, if you'll pardon the prefix, postpunk, well within the bounds of good weirdo taste: the Slits, Flipper, Sun Ra, James Blood Ulmer, the vanished one-man band Z'ev, some African music, Kathy Acker, J.G. Ballard (later treated to his own issue), the inevitable William Seward Burroughs III, even Octavio Paz and Julio Cortazar. But later issues tested the margins, and although time does play tricks, I suspect they'll always seem a little outré. In addition to a relatively straightforward collection featuring "angry women" like Karen Finley, Susie Bright, and bell hooks, where one detects the passions of Vale's partner Andrea Juno, there were volumes about pranks, "modern primitives" (piercers, tattoo artists, and such), and Boyd Rice's favorite C movies. A tasteful fellow myself, I was content to limit my familiarity with this work to the occasional once-over. But I felt obliged to take a closer look at RE/Search #14, Incredibly Strange Music (Volume 1). And soon visions of Pittsburgh were dancing in my head.

The 14 interviews break down into four with artists--miscast token Eartha Kitt, Martin Denny of "Quiet Village" fame, and '60s synth-pop tinkerers Gershon Kingsley and Jean-Jacques Perrey--and 10 with collectors; although many of the collectors dabble in showbiz, only drag queen Lypsinka and Lux Interior and Ivy Rorschach of the Cramps qualify as artist-collectors by me. Since the idea is to honor "the sonic territory of vinyl recordings (mostly c.1950-1980) largely neglected by the music criticism establishment," rock and roll gets short shrift. One interview hypes unknown surf records that I'll bet sound every bit as bland as the known ones, and having already been gulled by too many awed descriptions of supernally feral singles by hormone-crazed Southerners, I resisted the numerous encomia to unsung heroes of rockabilly, rock's prime pre-Amerindie collector genre. There might have been more early r&b. But unfortunately r&b's byways have already been mapped out by the music criticism establishment.

Anyway, rock and roll obscurities are hegemonic by definition. What most of these collectors care about is either garage-sale camp--tiki music, celebrity albums, bird recordings--or light, jazz- or classical-tinged middlebrow instrumentals typified in their individualistic ways by Denny, Perrey & Kingsley, and Les Baxter, whose "The Poor People of Paris" Joel Whitburn reckons Billboard's No. 17 single of the '50s and who is mentioned by a pace-setting four interviewees. A taste for such music was a structure of feeling in the San Fran postpunk subset that centered around the Residents, and the sensibility is there for the consumption and canonization on the Caroline companion CD Incredibly Strange Music, compiled by Juno from Vale's vinyl collection. Despite their claims to "amazing diversity" and "unique and bizarre visions of life," it's not hard to generalize about these 13 tracks. All are by white people, and though rhythms tend to the "Latin," all are notably deficient in bottom; the few guitars owe more to Django than Duane, and characteristic sonorities are up in the whistling-vibraphone-marimba-sitar-theremin range. There are two classical covers ("Flight of the Bumblebee" and "William Tell Overture") and two satirical songs about dumb teenagers; this being pomo, one can never be sure, but the context suggests a take-that! satisfaction in both strains of implicit antirockism. The only other vocals are Katie Lee's "Will To Fail," from her Songs of Couch and Consultation LP, and Kali Bahlu's spoken-word-with-sitar-plus "Cosmic Telephone Call," a wacky flight of pseudo-Buddhist ecumenicism that's easily the most charming find here.

Beyond their compulsion to escape pop's Afro-American mainstream, two things strike me about these selections. One is indeed their marginality--except for the now reissued Perrey & Kingsley, whose Vanguard albums I discarded on their '60s go-round, I'd never heard of a single artist here. But the other is how suburban they are. As Vale and Juno note, a lot of this supposedly incredible stuff was a direct response to the hi-fi boom of the '50s and '60s--conceived by people who were fascinated by recorded sound for people who wanted to show off their stereos. This means that somewhere near its surface it presupposes not merely disposable income--teenaged spending cash was the economic motor of rock and roll--but a commitment to affluence, to material comfort. For me, this is a clever variation on Cowley's final phase, and it insures the ultimate banality of the CD's concrète-naif sound effects and whoop-de-doo chord changes. Vale and Juno's political/countercultural response might well be that deep down, even putative normals aspire to the extraordinary, which is always worth remembering. But unless you're the kind of person who can't wait to find out who Schnitzler was (Viennese playwright, 1862-1931), you don't need to outwit the normals with artists nobody has heard of to prove it.

I say this as someone who has found as much surprise as simple pleasure from Pop Memories, Rhino's latest Joel Whitburn compilations--top 10s from the '20s, the '30s, and every five years through 1959. Licensing glitches notwithstanding (Les Baxter checks in with "Unchained Melody" rather than his greatest hit), these midprice half-hours are ear-opening if not incredible aural history, and since I'd never heard (or at least listened to) a lot of the stuff that predates me, I assume most of it will come as news to young bohemians. Giving it up to Paul Whiteman is a spiritual stretch I wouldn't wish on anyone, but Al Jolson and Gene Austin are worth the trouble, the big-band hits come easy, and Bing Crosby is a gas. The leap between Whiteman's 1926 "Valencia" and Crosby's 1936 "Pennies From Heaven" transcends individual rebop--it feels cultural, a claim on a distinctly American rhythm and a precondition of the swinging hi-fi to come. Yet as Don Byron observes by way of explaining his widely praised tribute album to Mickey Katz--the very Jewish clarinet clown who, to give collectors their due, does garner a mention in Incredibly Strange Music--this achievement couldn't eradicate ethnic anxiety all by itself. Byron believes that the watered-down '50s exotica of "Vaya Con Dios," "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White," and "The Poor People of Paris" (and also, though he doesn't name it, "Quiet Village") constituted a vaccine against Americans' fear of their own foreignness--and that Katz ridiculed this fear instead of capitulating to it. I'm not sure I agree. But though the music criticism establishment has canonized klezmer for years without piquing my interest, Byron impels me toward the Klezmatics far more persuasively than Vale and Juno do toward Martin Denny or Les Baxter. I wonder how many of Vale and Juno's sources have heard his record.

I'd never suggest there's no reason to escape the Afro-American mainstream, but nothing in Incredibly Strange Music convinces me that the most meaningful escape is via the margins. Ethnic anxiety sufferers disinclined to immerse in someone else's stream, the alternative I usually recommend, are better advised to try ambient techno, say, than the pomo style that most closely evokes this particular collector aesthetic: the more-cited-than-sighted lounge-music wave finally made manifest in CDs by Chicago's Coctails (now going the musicianly fake-jazz route), Boston's Combustible Edison ("Nothing coy here, no sly indie-rock wink, and never say `novelty'"--yeah sure), and Louisville's Love Jones ("Get off your grungy, little flannel-shirt, Doc Marten trip already"). In today's anything-goes environment, one or more of these bands might conceivably make music hepper than Liz Phair's or Pearl Jam's and more enduring than Leon Redbone's or Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks', except that none of them is talented enough, which always helps. These too shall pass.

But not altogether. Because you know that long around 2020, some on-line fanzine will delve into its aluminum-fetishist treasure trove and uncover the Coctails' Early Hi-Ball Years. Great claims will be made for "Road Hog," which ain't bad, and "Bold Rat," which ain't good. Somehow, somewhere, the convolutions will break and recede, break and recede.

Village Voice, Mar. 22, 1994