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.

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.

[Q] I'm one of your Chinese followers and firstly I want to express my respect for your big contribution to music criticism. Seriously, after you revisited Lady Gaga's Artpop in your q&a several months ago, your followers in China had a big fight about it. Some people support your new idea and think that Artpop had always been overrated from you, but some have reverently believed for years that Artpop is one of the best female albums of the 21st century and its commercial flop just made it even more legendary. Just wanna let you know. Also, Kanye West is an icon but his music is getting more extreme now, so how do you like Jesus Is King and his Sunday Service program? One last thing is Post Malone, who you've never mentioned. What caught my attention is that he was wildly popular for his personality. Maybe you're not interested in his music? I don't know. Thank you for choosing my message. It will be my honor to get your reply. -- Bobby, Qingdao, China

[A] I respect Kanye West as an artist. If not I wouldn't have given even the Kid Cudi collab EP Kids See Ghosts the time of day, but it was pretty good, so it snuck in at the bottom of the 2018 Dean's List. But that was a close call. Jesus Is King was not a close call. As a militantly secular ex-Christian, I'm not crazy about Christian music in general, but I make plenty of exceptions, and I diligently streamed Jesus Is King three-four times before finding better things to do. Grandiose, self-involved, uninspired, plus there are the underlying politics, which far as I'm concerned verge on evil. Compare My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the last time he was brilliant though I can hear why Ye has its cult; I don't like the philosophical underpinnings there much either, but sonically it's undeniable. And if you want to argue that he still had plenty on the ball with the Jay-Z collab and yes Ye and even Life of Pablo though I never wanted to play it once I'd reviewed it, well sure. Not now. Spiritually he's an egomaniacal shell, and the music is nothing. May he be born again for real, but I'm not holding my breath. As for Post Malone, I'm too old for that pop world and have no notion of what you mean by his personality. My only recent new pop enthusiasm is Lewis Capaldi, and that only because my now 34-year-old daughter hipped me to him, although she never could sell me on One Direction. I knew Post Malone was a big deal and streamed him half-heartedly a few times--none of my scattered pop informants, my daughter included, thought he was much. Heard nothing there and moved on.

[Q] I read where you said you had lunch with Randy Newman a year back or so. I like thinking about that lunch. It seems to me that you saw something very early in his work--probably 12 Songs first. Does he see it that way? Let us be a fly on the wall. -- JB Poersch, Alexandria, Virginia

[A] When I was still at Esquire, BMI's late great Russ Sanjek, a onetime music journalist who authored a three-volume history of popular music that I regret to say falls apart in the 20th century, called me up, found out I was heading to Cali with Ellen Willis, and asked me to write brief profiles of two artists I'd never heard of for the BMI magazine: Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman. Don't remember much about meeting Parks, though I was quite a fan of Song Cycle for a while. But I got along with Newman, then living with his first wife in a modest corner house in Studio City. In fact, we went to the park and played one-on-one basketball, where I plugged away and won even though he had several inches on me. I didn't remember I'd won until the lunch you refer to. Thought the debut album was fine but had its limitations, but when the sparer 12 Songs came out in 1970 I was bowled over--still one of my favorite albums ever. I'd spent time with him when I was at Newsday--once watched a World Series game in his Manhattan hotel room--and was fairly close to a long-deceased pal of his, but was nonetheless astonished when he phoned me out of the blue in 2014, or did he maybe email me first? Anyway, that was in June--he told me how much he liked my criticism and credited me in particular with having opened him up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a masterpiece by him. Then when he was in NYC in October he invited me to a rehearsal and a concert and then set up a lunch--me, Carola, his (female) (road?) manager, and Randy at a Japanese place where he ordered the best sashimi. We had a great conversation about all kinds of things including family and got along very well, but Carola would be a better fly on the wall because with her memory she always is--he told me later that he was impressed by how close she and I were, to which I'll add that the "Venus in sweatpants" touch on his new social distancing song "Stay Away" sounds uxorious enough to me. The big thing I remember him saying was how the whole semi-classical Tin Pan Alley palette--which he knows well because it's in his blood with two uncles big-time Hollywood composers as he now is as well--was blown away by four chords circa 1954. What he does for Hollywood, of course, encompasses both traditions, plus he still makes a great solo album every once in a while. When Covid hit I found myself hoping he was OK and emailed him to say so. If me and C ever get to LA again, I hope to look him up.

[Q] Except for Layla and 461 Ocean Boulevard you have been very dismissive of Eric Clapton's music. He's one of the great guitarists in rock history and he should have racked up a dozen A records in his 50-year career. What's your overall opinion of him? Do you think he wasted his talents or did he just shoot his wad early with the Yardbirds, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos? You never reviewed his Crossroads box or 5 Live Yardbirds or any Cream albums so I hope you at least agree that Cream's first and best album Fresh Cream is an A. -- Eric Wallach, New Milford, Connecticut

[A] There is a 1994 Clapton essay in my 1998 Harvard collection Grown Up All Wrong, which is not available online and never will be because that's the contract I signed. It's an excellent book, worth buying. But right, I'm not a big Clapton fan. Here's a copied-and-pasted excerpt (and a few grafs later you should see what I say about his sex life): "A promiscuous sideman whose monklike aura has never diminished his extravagant appetites, Clapton likes to get paid, and he's amassed a discography that for an artist of his caliber is remarkably undistinguished. In his self-protective self-deprecation he often attributes this to his own laziness or his need for a catalyst, but it's also guitar hero's disease: like many other guys whose hand-ear coordination is off the curve, he's a casual tunesmith and a corny lyricist, and his band concepts are chronically hit-or-miss." As I recall--remember, please, that I only started the Consumer Guide mid 1969--my favorite Cream album was Goodbye but I ended up liking Fresh Cream more in the end than I did when it came out to too much fanfare. Problem wasn't Slowhand, it was bassist-vocalist Jack Bruce, the original model of countless metal frontmen with classical pretensions--hate his singing, hate his lyrics too. As for the Yardbirds, I've been gifted with Yardbirds albums by not one but two friends hoping to prove what I missed, one of them Lester Bangs. A more than OK band, sure, but not much as songwriters, which matters matters matters--I so prefer the Who and the Kinks and for that matter the Hollies, maybe even the Dave Clark Five.

[Q] I've always been immensely satisfied with your reviews of Nirvana. I'm curious: what do you think in retrospect set that dynamic trio of Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl apart from the rest? -- Hugh, West of Ireland

[A] Grohl. The band was excellent before him, world-historic after he moved in on drums--not, please, guitar. Probably Nirvana would have happened anyway, but a great band needs a great drummer and that was the timeline. One of the many tragedies of Cobain's death was that it stuck us with the Foo Fighters.