Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Illustrated Histories

Students of spelling will quickly note a crucial difference between Rock & Roll, the 10-hour rock-doc that PBS will broadcast on five consecutive evenings beginning Sunday, September 24, and Time-Warner's similarly configured The History of Rock 'n' Roll, an unbowdlerized version of which hit the racks at a suggested $20 per episode after it aired last March. The kiss-me-I'm-capitalist product sticks with the corny those-people-don't-talk-correctly 'n', while the public-service opus (financed cooperatively with the BBC) signifies its post-Gutenberg smarts with a pomo &. Needless to say, neither opts for rock and roll, the orthographic signal that a putatively oral phenomenon has entered written discourse. They don't call TV audiovisual for nothing--even if boring old words are required to hold the bits together, images and music are why people watch and listen. So while the PBS history does have something to say, this admirable and potentially useful gesture would be more admirable--and a hell of a lot more useful--if it also had more to show.

One would prefer in addition, of course, to agree with what it has to say. But the big job is inducing viewers to think about the subject, and at least PBS tries. The overarching concept of the Time-Warner series is that it has no overarching concept--just a method. That method is to avoid experts--not merely professors and rock critics, but managers, a&r people, anybody offstage--and let the artists tell the story. Antielitist in theory, this is pure star-pimping in practice, an attempt to suck the masses into their history lesson with Bono and Bruce, Luther Vandross and James Hetfield. Anyway, if you assume that rock and roll is created solely by musicians, you should at least explore music itself, a theme addressed in more illuminating (if sporadic) detail by PBS. Instead The History of Rock 'n' Roll sails past on a river of pop-sociological cliches, epitomized by Tom Petty's "theory" (to borrow his term) that '50s rock died when Elvis got drafted, Jerry Lee married his cousin, Buddy Holly went down in flames, and the bizzers took over. Heartbreaker, Traveling Wilbury, renaissance man--how did Petty find the time to formulate such a complex overview when he was already so busy creating new musical forms?

Although it can't avoid such truisms, Rock & Roll does deemphasize them a little. As it sets artists to talking about the culture they helped shape, it also draws them out on technique and influence, about which they're invariably more original--Roger McGuinn citing Coltrane hooks and Beatle folk chords, Bootsy giving it up to Larry Graham, John Lydon praising Steve Jones. From Sam Phillips to Berry Gordy, from Allen Ginsberg to Rick Rubin, from Motown etiquette coach Maxine Powell to James Brown tour manager Alan Leeds, creative mediators contribute the essential outsider's gift of perspective. And organizing all this material is a thesis that has chief consultant Robert Palmer's fingerprints all over it. Several major authorities, notably Rolling Stone Illustrated History editor Jim Miller, ended up working with Time-Warner, but usually they came in late, sharpening the vague, predictable theses of episode writer-directors encouraged to minimize narration and analysis. Palmer was more involved. Southerner, musician, academic, hipster, he's always seen rock and roll as an African-based avant-garde music for primitivist rebels of all races. While Time-Warner's series by no means downplays black artists (Quincy Jones was one of four executive producers), PBS's is constructed around them. Its triumph is a full account of funk, which Time-Warner, caught between antidisco oversimplifications and an inept soul segment, altogether ignores. It honors postwar r&b, devotes a whole hour to hip hop, and introduces the Beatles as successors to the girl groups: "Some would say that they had even saved rock and roll--but from whom?"

Both series are understandably upbeat about rock and roll's effect on race relations--without doubt America would be a more racist place without African American music. But America remains a racist place--and moreover, pop music remains a racist business. So for the average rock and roll fan to consider the possibility that the Beatles were usurpers has got to be salutory. The only problem is, they weren't. It would be nice if the narrator pointed out that the two black artists who accuse the British Invasion of foreshortening their careers, motivated ex-Drifter Ben E. King (way overrated, I say) and sainted Shirelle Shirley Owens/Alston/Reeves (whom I've adored in print since 1968), peaked well before the Beatles even signed to Capitol--and that a slicker girl group called the Supremes somehow managed six #1 singles in 1964 and 1965, and that self-consciously black soul would thrive amid the pretentiously tolerant ferment of the hippie era, only to mutate into yet more self-consciously black funk just as the limits of that tolerance began to show. Not that all these factors are left out--just that their ramifications are rarely suggested and never explored.

Admittedly, I don't have the space to adduce all the contradictions and interconnections myself, and if such analysis is a difficult job in print, it's obviously not what audiovisual media are best at. Which is why the choice between the two series is more of a tossup than you might expect. Very simply, the Time-Warner is more educational to look at. In part this reflects economic power--licensing vintage clips has become very costly, especially for home video use, which is why Rock & Roll is unlikely ever to go on sale. But Time-Warner's Andrew Solt is an acknowledged whiz at locating and landing prime footage. And if we can't expect poor strapped PBS to secure, for instance, the miraculous lost film of Bob Dylan going electric at Newport '65, there was nothing to stop it from pursuing strong stills and appropriate establishing footage. As it stands, whenever the narrative moves to a new city, we see that city as it looks today, decrepit architecture infested with late-model cars. Deprived of historical locale, the history itself loses texture. One reason the funk segment is so impressive is that James Brown, given short shrift by Time-Warner, gets an expansive, expertly explicated early-'70s clip featuring an amazingly goony-looking Bootsy Collins.

Oh well--they're your 10 hours, and PBS is free, or at any rate paid for. By all means catch next Wednesday's "Make It Funky," although unless you believe Iggy is God you can skip the inflated account of glam that precedes it. The first two episodes, "Renegades" and "In the Groove," vividly convey the genius of founding madmen from Sam Phillips to Brian Wilson, and the soul chapter--Wilson Pickett and Rick Hall on the Wicked One vs. the Muscle Shoals Peckerwoods, Motown minutiae from Maxine Powell and Cholly Atkins--proves how entertaining mere interviews can be. Thursday's hip hop and techno (sorta) finales, on the other hand, are dicey. Time-Warner's bow to current events, "Up From the Underground," is simultaneously safer and smarter as it reduces the '80s, the '90s, and the 21st century to an hour; five years from now, we may decide it missed the boat, but unless the Orb and Detroit electro gather considerable world-historical moment, PBS will still be waiting on the dock. Nevertheless, you can wait to check that one out until December, when The History of Rock 'n' Roll will be rebroadcast. The Time-Warner episodes you should be sure to screen while you're thinking about it are the folk-rock "Plugging In," which is astute, ambitious, and compelling over and above the must-see Newport clip, and "Punk," which succeeds in balancing all those acrimonious U.S. and U.K. counterclaims--and unearths a long Patti Smith clip so soulful it aroused the nostalgia that lurks even within hearts as hard as mine.

Nostalgia, history--what's the diff, right? This is television, gang. Be grateful for small favors, because they're all you're gonna get. That's why I've always preferred rock and roll, rock & roll, and even rock 'n' roll.

Buy the Book

Long after the images are consumed, the greatest gift of these two megavideos to rock historiography will be an old-fashioned object constructed of paper, ink, glue, thought, and guile: Robert Palmer's Rock & Roll: An Unruly History (Harmony, gorgeous, $40, so maybe you should wait for the paperback or Christmas). Based loosely on the PBS series Palmer helped conceive, it sneaks in considerable research from his long-promised account of rock's beginnings and pretty much ends with punk, which happens to be where Palmer's avant-primitivist vision turns into an orthodoxy. And despite the efforts of Rolling Stone's Ward-Stokes-Tucker troika, a passel of differently abled academics, and the ecstatically hyped neocon Martha Bayles, it's easily the finest rock history to appear since the absurdly early efforts of Nik Cohn (Rock From the Beginning) and Charlie Gillett (The Sound of the City). Palmer makes no claims to definitiveness, homing in as needs be on marginal figures like hustler Teddy Reig and convicted murderer Pat Hare (who he says cut "the first heavy-metal record" for Sun in 1954). To 10 PBS-based chapter topics he adds excursions on African retentions, dionysian transcendence, and the prehistory of rock guitar--the last a brilliantly documented if perhaps factitious argument that black musicians got there first. This is an eccentric book by someone whose life was saved by r&b. His mission is to prove that "the main program . . . is liberation through ecstasy"--and that ordinary pop music is the Antirock, at best a tapped-out version of the real deal. He devotes much too much space to the '50s--too damn much to the '60s as well. But the man knows his arcana. No one has ever written so knowledgably about the music qua music. And as soon as he can, he cans the ampersand and spells it rock and roll.

Village Voice, Sept. 26, 1995