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.

August 24, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

The greatest jazz composer as a player, considering Zappa and 'Pet Sounds,' the internet's capacity for evil, Christian nationalists' capacity for same, and thoughts not from the killing floor.

[Q] You reviewed Duke Ellington This One's for Blanton, but never even mentioned his late masterpiece (it seems) The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, which Gary Giddins called one of his favorite albums of the '70s (and I thank him for the recommendation). Have you heard it? What did you think? I also thank you. I'm very happy that you were there on internet back in the hard times to help me fall in love with music again. I didn't have any grandfathers, so at times it felt like you are one to me, revealing the secrets only grandfathers know. Also, any other writing is a breeze after yours. It's kind of a compliment. -- Mark, Russia

[A] Believe me, I know it's a compliment, and I always thank an internet for which I'm by no means always grateful when readers from a far-off culture tell me I've hipped them to some music that's brightened and deepened their lives. As you're not obliged to be aware though it's no secret, my tastes in jazz--which I've enjoyed since I was a teenager without ever developing anything remotely approaching the encyclopedic knowledge of my old colleague and longtime friend Giddins, in my opinion the greatest jazz critic who ever lived--run almost exclusively small-group. I like the interactive spontaneous multi-individuality of quartets and quintets especially. This One's for Blanton is of course a duet record featuring Ellington and the great bassist Ray Brown. It offers a rare chance to enjoy the spontaneous "understatement" and "extravagance" of the greatest jazz composer as a player.

[Q] Your opinions on early Frank Zappa records vary quite a bit (Hot Rats only got a C while the Mothers of Invention's We're Only In It for the Money got an A) so it's hard to know what you think of the rest of his 1960s work. Maybe you admire his satire more than his music so I'd like to know if you're fond of any other Mothers albums such as his musical peak Uncle Meat or his doo-wop satire/tribute Cruising with Ruben and the Jets and what you think of the Mothers of Invention in general in terms of rock history? -- GK, Illinois

[A] Zappa was a highly intelligent but even more egotistical motherfucker who I enjoyed mostly for his comedy/satire when he surfaced during the hippie era. It was bracing amid all that air pudding. But spiritually, let's call it, his aversion to air pudding bespoke an emotionally stunted person whose cultural utility shrunk drastically once the fatuous side of the hippie dream turned into a sick joke that didn't need him. I enjoyed Ruben and the Jets' simultaneously fond and satirical doowop, but relistening find its affection imperfectly realized and its satire shallow and racially suspect, in part because my respect for doowop itself has only deepened with the years. Similarly, I know many jazz-prone rock fans who adore his guitar, especially on Hot Rats. Me, I much prefer Stevie Ray Vaughan and Tom Verlaine, not to mention the inexhaustible Hendrix, and cannot offhand name a single jazz guitarist including George Benson and Jim Hall who means anything to me.

[Q] Rolling Stone's Top 500 albums of all time list ranked The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds as #2 with only Marvin Gaye's What's Going On above it. Your "hits plus filler" review of the Gaye explains why you only gave that one a B+ but you've never reviewed or even written about Pet Sounds to my knowledge. You have said that Wild Honey is your favorite BB album but us BB fans would sure love to know what you think of Pet Sounds--and Friends too for that matter as those two are considered Brian Wilson's musical peaks. Probably they're not A+ to you but do they at least earn an A- from the Dean? -- Lee M, NYC

[A] I don't know about Friends but sure Pet Sounds is at least an A minus. That said, it sounded better on Joe Levy's superb sound system after he cooked us dinner Sunday night (great editor, great cook) than it did on my good one at breakfast--as he pointed out, the Spector-inflected production meshes thrillingly with Wilson's rather less grand proclivities. But Joe was a teenager when he caught up with Pet Sounds, and therefore responded with more excitement than I could have to its aurally-enhanced emotional complexity. At 23, I found such complexities elsewhere--in both Thelonious Monk and the Rolling Stones, for starters. The Beach Boys I love are the surf-oriented adolescent hedonists of Endless Summer and also the low-Brian Wild Honey, which I can at least claim to have been on much earlier than most critics and which also featured prominently in the early weeks of my lifetime with Carola Dibbell.

[Q] What do you think of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell boycotting Spotify? On one hand U think it's good they stand up for a cause, but it's also REALLY going to limit their popularity among younger people. -- Sebastian, Santiago, Chile

[A] I think it's great--well-known artists publicly calling attention to the internet's capacity for evil, while obviously of limited practical utility, automatically enriches the conversation and sours by just a miniquantum their admirers' trust of and tolerance for online information. Me, I can't do my work without Spotify, so I continue to use it. Can't do my work without Amazon Prime's overnight delivery either. But I do what I can to purchase books and meds and other stuff elsewhere.

[Q] Why was important to mention in the response to Stan Greer's question that the man had an Italian surname? -- Mark Carpentieri, Suffolk County

[A] Funny you should ask, because my editor tried to get me to omit it. Answer's simple, as I can't imagine you didn't guess. I remember that his surname was Italian because to me that indicated Roman Catholic, which in 1969 was the religion most ardently opposed to what I'll just call family planning. Indeed, not even Pope Francis, who I admire enormously, has lifted the RC ban on contraception that increasingly few Catholics obey. I mean, this doctor (presumably an intern) was a menace, claiming that his refusal to release the young woman was medical while at the same time actively hostile to both the patient and the two hippies who were trying to spring her before he could summon not senior medical advice but the law. And he was clearly appalled by Ellen Willis, who was formidable and unyielding in argument as for many men at that time and quite a few today no woman should have the temerity to be. I no longer recall how we brazened our way out, but the verbal battle was pretty brutal. These days, of course, Christian nationalists are the fiercest bullies on this subject, passing more and more sadistic, misogynistic anti-abortion laws in state legislatures, and if you'd told us in 1969 that Roe v Wade would change American law in a few years we wouldn't have believed it.

[Q] I'm interested in your take on white people listening to black music. I'm not trying to open cans of worms here, I'm prompted by something I read (from Frederick Joseph?) about not pretending to understand a culture you have no way of understanding. I can discern artistry in words and music, but I've never been on the killing floor or lived in a food desert. -- Tincanman, British Columbia

[A] Since a substantial proportion of the music I write about is created by Black people, this is clearly a question loaded with worms. Books can be written on such subjects, and many have been. But just for starters let me make a few points. Most important, "black music" is gross if often unavoidable shorthand. Is all music created by Black people "black music" no matter the intentions of its creators? Is it all "black" in the same way? Is that way the music's sole aim and total meaning? In creating it is a Black musician intending to define or express Black culture or merely expressing his or her own vision of the world and formal relationship to music, which is probably inflected by his or her Blackness but presumably not limited to it because he or she is also a human individual not all of whose uniqueness is bound up with experiences he or she shares with other Black people--and not all of whom have ever lived in a food desert or worked on the killing floor. Moreover, the vast majority of those musicians would just as soon sell their music to humans of every racial orientation. In listening to this music is a white person pretending to "understand" Black culture? As indicated, I could go on for pages; many have, not all of them Black. But instead I suggest you make an effort to clarify your thinking while you continue to listen to "black music" whatever your own racial heritage and/or orientation.