Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Xgau Sez

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

July 15, 2020

Grades that hold up (and one that didn't), lyrical determinacy (or not), Kendrick's minuses (and pluses), pleasant enough music, unpleasant mail and the eternal greatness of T.S. Monk's "Bon Bon Vie."

[Q] Are there some notable albums you had loved initially but in the process of time of time you think of them as much worse? You know, an A-, an A, or maybe even an A+ that has aged extraordinarily poorly; put out of context, there's not much left? -- Jakub, Olkusz, Poland

[A] Basically the answer is no, although the way David Murray's A plus Shakill's Warrior failed to bowl me over when I checked it out a while back is an exception--A plusses should be eternal, so I'd have to guess now that that one is an A minus. The reason it's only "basically," however, is that there are for sure some A minus albums out there that I haven't played since I reviewed them--statistically, it's inevitable. I wouldn't expect to immediately "get" every low A minus I haven't played in 20 or 30 years, but I also wouldn't replay unless I had a journalistic reason to do so even though it would only be fair to give it a second try. In general, however, such experiments work out very well--A minuses I literally haven't heard in two or three decades sound fine when I bring them back. I remember doing that a year or two back with two early-'70s albums by what I'd describe as black bohemians who got very little critical attention: Paul Pena in 1972 and "Mississippi Charles" Bevel in 1973. After almost half a century both were still clearly A minuses by me. Proud to say I seldom jump the gun or get carried away by either the conventional wisdom or my own contrarian tendencies.

[Q] Hi Bob! Another one of your Chinese fans here, wanna thank you for your work, I started following when I was 12, now I'm 25 and your writing has pretty much formed my musical tastes and still is the never failing compass to exciting new (and old) music. So! As a non-native English speaker, I've always wondered what your approach to the comprehension of lyrics in more obscure and less accessible music is. Might as well throw in some of the hip-hop and folk music (Dylan?). As I understand it, you play the records a couple of times and delve into them when the music really grabs you. I doubt that you understand everything all the time, so at what point do you decide that you need to read them? Do you always wait until you understand everything before you grade the records? (All the slang and cultural references in hip-hop music!) And what do you do if you can't get hold of the lyrics? -- Jo, Nantes, France

[A] As long as they're in English I always try to know what the lyrics are at least in general before I sign off on a record, which always takes more than a couple of times, and when they're not readily available I poke around trying to get a rough idea. Many people, some of them wonderful vocalists or otherwise gifted musicians, have really stupid ideas about politics, religion, and human relations, and many men have deplorable ideas about women. Not most, certainly, but for sure a few, and if I'm signing off on music that includes such ideas I at the very least want to be aware of it. Sometimes, of course, knowing the lyrics is literally impossible, because they're garbled or gargled. But Genius, which I refer to all the time, is a very useful if less than absolutely accurate resource, and often interviews and reviews help too. The lyrics aren't determinative and shouldn't be. The music generally continues to dominate my aesthetic response, though there are exceptions. But knowing what's there is just part of the job.

[Q] I'm probably grade-grubbing here, but you gave pretty much every Kendrick Lamar album an A-minus, which means there are some flaws holding it back from an A/A+. I'm curious to know what those flaws are--is it song-for-song inconsistency, or a general dislike for his ambitious concepts? And given that To Pimp a Butterfly came in 22nd on your best-of decade list (ahead of Modern Vampires, which got an A+) has your opinion changed? -- Oscar, Johannesburg, South Africa

[A] Not grade-grubbing--a reasonable question, especially given Butterfly's placement in my decade list, though if you look at the Dean's List for 2015 (via the Pazz & Jop tab on the homepage) you'll see it's number four there, because by year's end I'd already decided I'd underrated it. My problem with Lamar has always been his flow. I've just never gotten the kind of musical thrill from his soft-edged enunciation that I do from crisper and clearer rappers: Chuck D, Rakim, Jay-Z, Eminem, Nicki Minaj. Especially given that I made it a point to defend Kanye's somewhat awkward flow when he was getting dissed for it early in his tragic and increasingly reprehensible career, this is obviously a personal quirk of mine, one I might renounce altogether were I ever to spend a day or two bearing down on Lamar. A major artist without question.

[Q] A lot of young people coming off of the musical line of Vampire Weekend, Sufjan Stevens, Beach House, and Mitski feel like (Sandy) Alex G stands out brightly in Spotify's indie playlists. What did you think of his September 2019 album House of Sugar? Too pleasant with not enough being said? -- Alan, Canada

[A] I read those reviews and dutifully stuck the album up at the top of my Spotify Consumer Guide candidates, of which there are a lot. Assumed that I'd put it on now and then and eventually it would hook on between my ears the way all the artists you've named did after three-four-five plays--if not worth a full review, then at least what I still think of as an Honorable Mention. Didn't happen, so after a month or so I gave up. "Too pleasant without enough being said" may well be the reason--I note that the four artists you named all have both distinctly different sounds and lyrical approaches, the latter of which Alex G definitely does not.

[Q] Was looking through your grades recently (as one does with way too much free time on their hands) and was curious about your opinions on any Swans album past Filth (1983)? You gave it a B+, so I'd generally imagine you don't dislike their sound or their vibe in general. Or maybe on a broader topic: any strong opinions on Gira's work outside of the group? (Referring his solo work, Angels of Light, The World of Skin, or The Body Lovers / The Body Haters.) Can't really imagine you being a fan of the super heavy stuff, but thought I would ask anyway. -- Paul Attard, New York

[A] Sometimes in the late '80s, after I'd published a few derogatory words about Swans in contexts I no longer recall--possibly Voice Choices or something?--I got a letter from Michael Gira or someone claiming to be Michael Gira with a hand-written message explaining that the gluelike residue on the paper was Gira's semen and a few of his pubic hairs. By this time I'd decided that Swans weren't as funny as my B plus said they were, so I was convinced by this missive never to listen to them again. In fact, however, I did, early in this decade; don't remember which latish Swans album the Pitchfork boys got so exercised about, but I played it more than once and decided I'd done my duty. I can't say I was surprised when a few years ago singer Larkin Grimm accused Gira of raping her.

[Q] I fucking love "Bon Bon Vie." I mean, how could you not? This is an amazing song that deepens every time you listen to it. I'm just curious to know, considering how much you love Monk, do you think that the fact that it was made by two of his children influenced how much you love that song purely musically? -- Nicholas Auclair, Montreal

[A] Seems to me my CG album review answers the Thelonious question. But since you've given me this opening, I'm grabbing the chance to point out that the final chapter of my Going Into the City memoir is entitled "Bon Bon Vie" and includes the following paragraph:

T.S. Monk's "Bon Bon Vie" had no connection to Thelonious Monk except a big one--Monk's son, bandleader Thelonious Sphere Monk III a/k/a Toot, plus his sister Boo Boo and his fiancee Yvonne Fletcher. Their 1980 debut album was produced by Sandy Linzer, a veteran songwriter with enough catalog highlights to keep a hack's head up--the Toys' "Lover's Concerto," the Four Seasons' "Workin' My Way Back to You," Odyssey's "Native New Yorker"--who had also recently produced Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, the rare artistic entity (cf. the Pointer Sisters) to claim retro and make something more alive out of it. But not even Dr. Buzzard put such a spin on "the good life." "Bon Bon Vie" engineers its escape by devoting three stanzas to Toot's clock-punching weariness and alienation, one to how much he loves New York anyway, and one to a champagne-quaffing night on the town, the final line of which leaves his last remaining dime in a blind man's cup. Yet in all five stanzas the Chic-like spritz of Toot's arrangement and the good-humored ebullience of his vocal--an excellent drummer by trade, he can sing when he has a song, including a 1999 "Just a Little Lovin'" almost as sexy as Dusty Springfield's--exemplify a Gramsci precept Marshall Berman loved: "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." Linzer never gave the band another decent song. And then, in a Marshall Berman-worthy turn, both Boo Boo Monk and Yvonne Fletcher died of breast cancer in 1984. After a period of seclusion, Toot emerged to head Boo Boo's brainchild, the long-running Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. He also started a pretty good jazz group. But even rearranging his father's indelible book, he never came up with anything as complex and distinguished as "Bon Bon Vie."

June 17, 2020

Book picks, David Murray and Prince grades, singing with the brain, the two best albums never reviewed, and you say you want a revolution . . .

[Q] I haven't had the chance to buy Book Reports yet, but I was curious to know if you recommend any biography on Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, George Clinton, or Public Enemy or a book on New Orleans music. -- Nicolas Auclair, Montreal

[A] As you and I know, this question was simply the tag end of a long paean praising the first volume of Gary Giddins's superb two-volumes-so-far Bing Crosby biography and recommending some Crosby recordings on Spotify that I'll try to get to sometime. And as some may recognize, you are a frequent correspondent here, so much so that I'm rather shocked that you haven't yet purchased Book Reports. I will however name as you request other worthy books. Can't help on Ella and oddly enough don't know of a good P-Funk book; my records indicate that I read the David Mills oral history but I don't remember a thing about it. The Chuck D as-told-to Fight the Power has some jam. My favorite Miles Davis book is John F. Szwed's sharp and often alarming So What, although Ian Carr and Quincy Troupe, both of whom I've only looked at, are more renowned. James Kaplan's two volumes add up to the standard Frank Sinatra tome, but you could also read War and Peace instead. I admit to enjoying Kitty Kelley's scandal-mongering His Way, which is not to swear there's a true word in it; the Pete Hamill quickie Why Sinatra Matters has its virtues. New Orleans is different. I've only read in rather than through Jeff Hannusch's I Hear You Knockin' and Jason Berry et al's Up From the Cradle of Jazz but admire both, and recommend two biographies: Rick Coleman's Fats Domino and John Wirt's Huey Smith -- much of it's devoted to his lifelong fight to get his royalties, which proves a compelling and touching story. I also love love love the Ned Sublette memoir The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans.

[Q] Do you listen to every new release by the great David Murray or do you just check out ones that get good buzz? You haven't reviewed him since grading three of his albums in the '90s when you also mentioned five others: The Tip, Shakill's II, MX, Saxmen, and Special Quartet. I'd like to know if you highly recommend any of those five albums or any other recent ones since then. -- Tom Brooks, Portland, Oregon

[A] I was familiar with David Murray early because Voicer Stanley Crouch, who I edited for most of the '80s, was his drummer when the two got to NYC circa 1975. Soon it became apparent that he was not only a major tenor player but that--like Blood Ulmer and for that matter Ornette Coleman--his musical proclivities weren't especially trad and sometimes skewed rock/pop. He had more extra-jazz content and concept; he was never content to be a virtuoso within the jazz tradition. So as I did with Ulmer and Coleman, I followed him pretty closely when he was with Columbia and stuck with him when he moved to the adventurous Montreal label Justin Time. But on Justin Time he was encouraged to record all the time, and as the ideas thinned out and the CDs didn't automatically arrive in the mail he just kind of slipped my mind. When I got your question I hadn't thought about him in years. Went to Spotify and found loads of stuff I would have had to dig around for and possibly buy on spec 10-15 years ago. Played two or three and really liked a ballad album called Tea for Two. On the other hand, when I pulled out the A plus Shakill's Warrior in what may have been the first time in 25 years, one thing became clear quick: not an A plus. Tom Hull has been following him much more closely. If you're curious check out what he has to say.

[Q] Mr. Xgau, why are you so hung up on Bob Dylan's voice? I am a young 28-year-old man who loves the fact Bobby D insists on continuing to attempt to sing despite his last vocal cord giving out sometime around Y2K. Do you know who else insists on singing despite being wholly unable to do so? Kanye West, M.I.A., Neil Young, et al. Inability to sing has never held any rocknroll genius back from singing. Yet anything in the last two decades you've written about Dylan has to be centered on the same rote "gee whillikers just can't stand that damn bobby bray." Who the f cares? -- Alan Wagner, Los Angeles

[A] This is ignant. My position forever has been that singing is as much a matter of brains as physical equipment, as Dylan proved by changing his voice constantly in the '60s and also by turning his songs to mush and self-regard for most of the '80s. I gave "Love and Theft" (2001) an A plus, said it "render[ed] his grizzled growl as juicy as Justin Timberlake's tenor--Tony Bennett's, even." I wrote a rave review of Modern Times (2006) that compared him to known great singer Bing Crosby. My B plus for the underrated Together Through Life (2009) said he was incapable of tenderness, not of hitting the notes. My review of the overrated Tempest (2012) said his voice was "crumbling audibly," which it was, and gave it a B plus anyway. But I can't stand the pop-standards albums he began rolling out when his songwriting muse left him in the lurch (2014, was it?). That singing was imbued with privilege, not intelligence. We'll see how this new album sounds--haven't heard it as I write, and am hoping for at least a little better. As for the rivals you named, Young is often a great singer, M.I.A. often an effective one, Kanye smart enough to have transformed the valence of Auto-Tune before he turned into a Trump fan, Jesus freak, etc.

[Q] Has your opinion of Prince's early albums changed since his tragic death on opioids? I'm surprised to see Purple Rain and 1999 with only A- grades and his great Hits + B-Sides box only a B+. Don't you think they should all be A+ like his other masterpiece Sign O the Times? And do you think Prince was just getting started or was his best music behind him already? -- Bob S, Ridgewood, New York

[A] It just so happens I recently relistened to most of these records and asked myself very similar questions. Having done so, I stand by both my reviews and my grades. These are very good albums that I ranked top 20 but not top 10 if you'll look at the Dean's Lists, as I did to check. High A minuses, as I like to put it. The lesser tracks good but in the end imperfect or simply lacking that compelling je ne sais quoi as I hear it. You hear it differently, as I'm sure makes good sense to your particular mind-body continuum--people are different, and that's as it had better be. As for the greatest hits thing, I'm simply reporting that he's so damn good, as you've just insisted and I've just affirmed, that the greatest hits format is wasted on him--unless the B sides are almost as transcendant. Which in my opinion they're not.

[Q] What's the best album you never reviewed? -- Oldfart, New York

[A] That's easy as these questions seldom are: either The Beatles' Second Album or The Rolling Stones, Now! Which, as best I can recall, are two of the first four rock albums I ever purchased not counting The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) and Ray Charles's What'd I Say? (1962). In 1965 I believe, at Korvettes. The other two were Scepter's The Shirelles' Greatest Hits>, another all-time fave whose very similar Rhino iteration I gave an A plus in 1994, and Martha & the Vandellas' Dance Party, a typical Motown hits-and-filler no longer in my home shelves. I've probably played the three good ones more than any other albums I own just because they got such a head start. Half inspired covers (Solomon Burke, Amos Milburn, late Chuck Berry), half superb neglected originals ("Off the Hook," "What a Shame," "Surprise, Surprise"), Now! was easily the sharpest of the pre-Aftermath Stones LPs. As for Second Album, it's been pretty much written out of the canon because it was U.S.-only, prompting Dave Marsh to write a whole book about it. Beyond "She Loves You," one of my favorite records of all time (which I bought in its Swan version in 1963 not because I was any kind of collector but because that was the one this State Street shop in Chicago was selling), I love it for the covers, which predominate. Far as I'm concerned, "Money" and "Please Mr. Postman" are two of the best things they ever recorded, both surpassing the superb Motown originals.

[Q] In your last post, you linked a 1969 essay on revolution in which you said: "Anyone who is serious about changing things ought to be willing to prove it by taking risks. Right now, that means engaging in what I would call prerevolutionary politics . . . It means accepting the labor of organizing now and remembering that violence may be necessary later. It means being ready to give up your comforts if things turn out to be as bad as they seem." I'm a 24yo healthcare worker of color working in a pandemic as police kill unarmed black folks. I've given up my comfort, and things are as bad as they seem. Life-risking riots have made their way to the White House lawn. Elected officials literally endorse violent suppression. Resoundingly, the new word to have is revolution. Half a century ago, you said tactical violence may be necessary later. Decades of organizing have since failed to change oppressive structures. This generation has proven itself; is it time for violent revolution? -- Omar, Texas

[A] When this query arrived three weeks ago it seemed so urgent that I decided to answer it in a separate post, which I then spent 24 hours laboring over. Wrote about 1200 by no means completed words that I thought pretty much sucked. So I gave up. Here I'll keep my two main points as short as I can. First, 1969 was unimaginably different from 2020. At the end of the '60s what began as a black registration drive in 1964 and widespread antiwar protests in 1965 had spawned not just fervent, widespread popular opposition to LBJ's disastrous Vietnam policy but the black power movement, the women's movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement, and various violent revolutionary splinters, most prominently the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. It is literally not possible for people who didn't live through it to imagine the exhilarating ferment of the time. But all that emotion was fed by a continually expanding post-WW2 economy that engendered even in African-Americans a collective confidence that would collapse as that economy stalled--and was then scooped up by the financializers who now hold almost all of us young and old in some kind of economic thrall. But especially young. Which is to say that the spiritual conditions today are very different, and while maybe the desperation they engender is just the thing to start a revolution, I doubt they're enough to sustain one. That's point one. Point two is that "tactical violence" was a crock even then, one I expect I stuck in there to shore up my limited credibility. There was some, of course--inept bombing ventures epitomized by the West 11th Street explosion that destroyed a townhouse and killed three Weatherpeople next door to Dustin Hoffman and across the street from a friend of mine who soon decided to become a swami. Since then, as we're now all too aware, local police forces have been fully militarized and, as no one seems to mention, a once obscure organization called the National Rifle Association has encouraged its vastly expanded membership, some of which holds rightwing views far more extreme and developed than those of, say, the John Birch Society in the '60s, to arm themselves with multiple killing machines they know how to use. Even in Texas our side is nowhere near as well armed, not to mention quick on the draw. Which is a major virtue, I'd say--but not one that improves our odds in an armed revolution.

May 20, 2020

John Prine's half century of great songs, playlisting for fun and work, 72 words in 24 hours, and what's at stake on November 3rd

[Q] Hope everything is good for you and your family with the corona virus going around. I have been an enthusiastic reader of your writing since high school! Just one question: Any thoughts on the death of the great John Prine? -- Keiro Kitagami, Japan

[A] I knew I was a Prine fan but was amazed at a) how big a fan and b) how many different artists clearly loved the shit out of him. When he died I felt personally bereft, which Lennon aside never happens to me in these cases. Kept playing his records for weeks, sometimes on Spotify because I never got CDs of the early stuff and sometimes extracting vinyl from my shelves, and not just because Carola kept making requests. His death was a shock to both of us because the report from his wife Fiona had been that he was out of intensive care and getting better, though at his Grammys tribute in January--Bonnie Raitt doing "Angel From Montgomery"--I worried that he wasn't performing himself and looked kind of frail in the audience. (Note however that it's been said he seldom performed as much as in the last few years.) And then everyone started writing and tweeting about it--I'm told Wussy did "Christmas in Prison," one of my many favorites, at an at-home show. He wrote great songs for half a century, right up to the present--I underrated Fair and Square in 2005. In 1999 I did a piece about him that's in Is It Still Good to Ya? But there's a detail I left out. Carola had been invited to the dinner where it begins but decided our daughter Nina needed the company and stayed home. When I got there everybody urged me to call and have her come up, so she did. We'd both met him just once before, backstage at a folk festival on Long Island when I was working for Newsday, probably 1973. Prine took one look at her and remembered that meeting, after a quarter of a century. What a sweetheart. What a noticer. And what a master of vernacular English. As I wrote somewhere, halfway up Mount Rushmore at least.

[Q] Do you think music will change in the next year or two as a result of the global pandemic? Will new albums by "bands" cease to exist for a time while only DIY electronica artists like Four Tet, Burial, Flying Lotus, and godfather Brian Eno, all of whom have new albums out now incidentally, are released? -- Jack Westin, St. Louis

[A] I'm very concerned about how the pandemic will affect music. In addition to the loss of discretionary consumer income sure to ensue, it's an economic disaster for most of the marginal types I devote so much time to--with streaming having turned records into a glorified merch niche monetarily, those who still earn their livings at it do so on the road, which will probably be off the table for all of 2020 as the epidemic fails to recede due to Trump's murderous indifference and aversion to complex ideas. It will also be harder to sustain economically when it returns. Nor is dance music likely to fare any better. That said, so far a lot of good music is being released, and bands (no quotation marks by me) practicing together as opposed to playing out seems like a far simpler and safer thing to accomplish as quarantines ebb and flow. As for an efflorescence of DIY electronica, I suppose it's inevitable structurally, though neither Burial nor Flying Lotus has released anything actually new and Eno stopped making interesting music decades ago.

[Q] Do you take into consideration and artist's statement about their work in terms of "intentions" or "message" as you review their albums? Do you care at all about finding out what they are? Is your current attitude in that regard a result of your evolution as a music critic or has it been the same from the beginning? -- Eddy, Canada

[A] Absolutely I care about intentions, and fairly often refer to them or even cite them as unattributed facts as in my recent Fiona Apple review. Do I therefore believe artists achieve what they say they've achieved? Absolutely not. I write about what I find in the music, occasionally also citing the critical consensus. Popular music doesn't exist in some formal vacuum. It's also almost always a social fact, and it would be just as foolish to ignore that as to feel obliged to address it every time out.

[Q] Your recent tweet about your wife's birthday playlist inspired me to check out your Spotify page, where I see you made other playlists. Minstrel Tunes looks interesting and the Woody Guthrie looks like his best, but the two that intrigue me are First Rock N Roll and Frankie Manning's Swingin' Big Band Favorites. I streamed the First Rock N Roll playlist and it's awesome - how did you select those 45 tracks? I liked the Big Band one so much I found a CD under that same title with the same songs and may just buy it. It looks as good as RCA's Fabulous Swing Collection which has been my go-to CD for big band swing for years. Why did you make a playlist of an available CD and not just buy it if you obviously love it? -- Mitchell Muhr, Brooklyn

[A] The public playlists on my Spotify page were assembled years ago for my NYU courses, one on popular music history and the other on the '50s. First Rock N Roll was based on What Was the First Rock'n'Roll Record by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, which we read in the '50s course. I notice that a lot of it is now grayed out . The swing album was put together by the legendary swing dancer Frankie Manning, who was still teaching and performing professionally when he died at 94 in 2009 and who I later taught in the pop history course. An old friend of mine was his partner and manager for many years and would come in and lecture about swing, about which she knows far far far more than I do--she's still very active in that world. I don't make most of my Spotify playlists public because I don't want fans or bizzers to know what I might review--most of them are whole albums. But I can see why people who like my writing might enjoy the NYU ones.

[Q] Thank you for flagging your "The Road Taken" in the last Xgau Sez. I was wondering if you could say a bit about your writing process for longer essay pieces. You've outlined a lot about how much work goes into your album-review capsules; are essays as painstaking, and full of revisions and drafts? -- David, London UK

[A] Essays tend to be even more painstaking because they're under construction longer. "The Road Taken" in particular was very hard to write--because it was so personal it was hard to find a tone that didn't seem self-indulgent, because Carola's feelings had to be taken into account, and because it forced me to articulate bedrock concepts I'd long understood generally and felt emotionally without ever getting that granular about them. Took me a week of steady work. More typical were the Barnes & Noble essays, which generally took three or four days but sometimes longer. In the Louis Armstrong piece reprinted in Is It Still Good to Ya? appears the following 72-word graf:

To me, this way of seeing things is suspiciously undemocratic. One meaningful distinction between high and popular culture is that there's way more good popular culture--because its standards of quality are more forgiving, because sobriety isn't its default mode, because there's so damn much of it. Since there's so damn much of it, and a lot of that is terrible, it rewards connoisseurship. But its strengths are quantity and variety--democracy.

That paragraph, which summed up ideas I'd been thinking about for 40 or 45 years and had already addressed in print many times, took me a full, miserable 24 hours, much of it at my desk but some in a fetal position on my bed contemplating my own ineptitude. Then it came, all in a burst that lasted five or ten minutes though I did some minor cleanup later. Both Greil Marcus in his Rolling Stone Q&A about the book and David Cantwell in the lovely The New Yorker rave he gave me cited that little passage. It looks so simple, doesn't it? But it wasn't. That's how writing can be.

[Q] You wrote a great essay in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign advocating for Hillary Clinton and explaining your issues with Bernie Sanders. Care to share your thoughts on the 2020 race? Where do you stand on Biden, and who were you gunning for during the Democratic primary? How worried are you about the outcome this time? -- Jason Silverstein, Brooklyn

[A] That piece is another one that took forever--a steady, frustrating week--because so much was at stake. I stand by every word. Hillary hasn't been a deft loser, which even though I never thought she was deft has been a disappointment. But those who believe she would have handed over the economy to the billionaires and hung Puerto Rico out to dry to kick off every kind of racist outrage is deluded. Which is not even to mention, of course, Trump's corrupt, ignorant, literally murderous response to a health crisis few politicos outside of some enlightened Obama bureaucrats even envisioned in 2016. So of course I think the 2020 election is even more crucial--democracy's last stand because Europe can't do it alone. Of course that democracy is infuriatingly partial. But as a longtime skeptic as regards the efficacy of revolution--see this 50-year-old piece--I believe anybody who doesn't understand how much is at stake in the forthcoming election is criminally stupid. The demise of the post office will make room for a full-scale attack on public education. White supremacism will flourish. Immigration will be under constant attack--the disgusting Stephen Miller is one Trump bureaucrat who knows how to make the evil he covets happen. Every working stiff, techies included, will have to get by on less. Public health will be so underfunded and inept that new contagions are more likely than not. Abortion will end, feminism atrophy, gay rights shrivel. Our scant chance of avoiding climate catastrophe will sink to near zero. Et cetera. I'll likely be dead before much of the worst fully materializes, but even if I didn't have a daughter all of this would depress and enrage me as a convinced democratic humanist. So was I pro-Biden to start? Of course not. I was strong for Warren as soon as she showed a taste for electioneering that looked to me like a knack, although it proved less effective than I'd imagined, and yes, I blame sexism plus rage-fueled political indifference and incomprehension. Biden is nowhere near as strong or deft a candidate-as-candidate as I'd prefer, although I blame his tendency to misspeak more on his childhood speech impediment than on a "senility" I regard as 90 percent ageist fantasy. But his brand of centrism does come with certain advantages, because unlike the Clintons and plenty of other Dem muckamucks he's not an ideological neoliberal. Instead he's an habitual if not instinctive compromiser, which with the Democratic party having moved left with more to come in the wake of the plague means he'll be much more open to something approaching socialized medicine as well as tax structures that soak the rich at least a little. So I hope to work for him this fall, health permitting--knocking on doors may prove impossible physically, meaning I may need to up my computer skills. Of course, that's assuming there'll be an election. That's the scariest possibility, and don't think I'm paranoid for mentioning it.

April 15, 2020

How we're doing, songs celebrating conjugal love, the last time Kanye was brilliant, the long road nowhere from "461 Ocean Boulevard" and lunch with Randy Newman

[Q] How are you and Carola dealing with the public health crisis (in the immediate medical sense, the existential sense)? Selfish as it is, can you please keep posting to And It Don't Stop (you have been, but this is a shameless plug for your newsletter), since those of us who are house-bound abso-fucking-lutely need the comfort of Xgau routine delivery, which may be an unfair burden put on you, but there it is nonetheless. -- Buddy Glass, Upstate New York

[A] We're doing as well as can be expected, although stay-at-home timing ruled out elective back surgery scheduled for March 31 that very likely would have eradicated or at least eased my thigh pain. As things stand, so to speak, I can't walk, so Carola does all the shopping we don't have delivered. Her oncologist recommended she walk a mile a day, which is sometimes terrific and sometimes scares her and sometimes she just skips. Since 2018 we've spent a lot of time alone together due to her cancer and my lameness, so that part is fine in its way--we actively enjoy being alone with each other, get mileage out of Netflix and Hulu and to a lesser extent Prime, plus she's plugging away at some writing. My writing is unabated, and over the past week I've gotten serious about home exercise--I bought this home cardio device called a Cubii that's working out fairly well, and Carola dug out our weights to I can do light upper-body stuff. Also good is that so far the only Covid cases we know of, some half dozen or so, are in their fifties or younger--not one of our senior friends has gotten sick. What the ultimate economic and political ramifications will be may cost me sleep--I am overly fond of Advil PM these days--but haven't much yet. Which is not to say, of course, that they aren't dire. I'm worrying a lot right now about the post office, an old passion of mine. But Trump Inc. has been a revolting and terrifying horror throughout.

[Q] I am always moved when you talk about your marriage and, in a previous dispatch, you described yourself as "a marriage fan." It made me wonder if you already had in your head or could conjure up some songs that highlight and best encapsulate the institution of marriage. As a member of the great unwashed (i.e., the singles), I think I could find it educational. Thanks. I just read your piece "My Thigh Hurts." I hope the rehabilitations--yours and your wife's--can continue to improve. All the best. -- Ben, Columbus, Ohio

[A] To name a few songs in no particular order: Ashford & Simpson's "Is It Still Good to Ya?," John Lennon's "Oh Yoko," Etta James's "Cigarettes and Coffee," Brad Paisley's "Then," Marshall Crenshaw's "Monday Morning Rock," the Beach Boys' "Darlin." Half of these are cited in the introduction to my 2015 memoir Going Into the City, which if you really care about this theme might make good quarantine reading, because rather than an account of what it's like to hobnob with the stars, which ain't me, it's an account of how I helped turn rock criticism into public discourse, but more importantly it's a love story. All of which is also explained in the introduction, but I'll add this: due to various details of my personal history, it's very consciously a story about sexual and emotional maturation of an American male with sexual insecurities to overcome like almost all American and indeed human males. As I've said many times, I think conjugal love gets a bad rap in supposedly sophisticated writing, rock criticism definitely included. I try to correct for that, quite consciously, because as it turned out the first woman I loved as an adult was both a powerful thinker and a lifelong opponent of marriage as an institution (though she ended up in a loving and lasting relationship with a remarkable man), which compelled me to theorize my own conclusions. If you'll look back at the last Xgau Sez you'll find links to three John & Yoko essays that are pertinent. Even more pertinent, however, is an 1800-word-piece called "The Road Taken," which some regard as the best thing I've ever written. And I should mention one more thing. A year ago Carola and I were featured in a special marriage issue of New York magazine--it was supposed to be a profile but ended up running as an interview. Here 'tis.

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