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.

October 19, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

On identifying left Democrat but not audiophile, rooting for Harry Styles, missing Gram Parsons, avoiding the b-word, and loving Canada (but not the Tragically Hip)

[Q] Were you always a pablum-puking liberal or did you have to be brainwashed? -- Ronald Regan, Austin, Texas

[A] I was raised in a born-again Christian family in Queens, Republicans though never true conservatives who like most Americans came to think the Vietnam War was a mistake. I started moving away from Christianity in my early teens, explicitly espousing atheism at 17. Influenced by several women I cared for, prominently including the two referred to in the Canada question below, I became a leftist in the '60s and would now label myself a "left Democrat" because I believe the word "progressive" has lost most of its mojo. I thank you for giving me an excuse to remind And It Don't Stop readers that there are crucial elections taking place November 8, perhaps as crucial as any we've known, and to urge them to vote as soon as possible as well as donate to favored candidates, as I have to over a dozen since March or so. Never since World War II has democracy been in so much peril.

[Q] I love your writing, and you have impacted my life in many ways. I saw Flipper at CBGB because of you. And much more. My question: what about Harry E. Styles? My daughter won tickets to one of the recent MSG shows on a local radio station and I took her. Sorry, but it was absolutely amazing, musically and otherwise. Can you acknowledge? "Watermelon Sugar" is a highlight, but far from the only one. He is a progressive dude and as musical as hell. Give credit where it is due! -- Stephen Petersen, Delaware

[A] Thanks for the tip, but wanted to make clear that because I generally open the Xgau Sez stuff only as deadline approaches that it was not your query that started me listening. It was my musically savvy daughter's enthusiasm, she bought tickets to more than one show, plus the imprimatur of Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone and the general vibe--heard two different baseball announcers report on taking their daughters and expressing credible respect (although Michael Kay was careful to say that he was "no Bruce"). Despite my complete indifference to One Direction, it seemed to me I should at least Spotify him a little, and almost immediately--I started with the debut--I was impressed by the clarity and definition of the production as well as lyrical snatches here and there. I'd love to see him, and I'm rooting for him--for him to retain a modicum of sanity under such circumstances is next to impossible.

[Q] Gram Parsons didn't take kindly to Roger McGuinn replacing his vocals on Sweetheart of the Rodeo; he said in an interview that McGuinn "erased it and did the vocals himself and fucked it up." Do you hear it that way or nah? -- Sebastian, Santiago

[A] First of all, I see where there's a mega-reissue of Sweetheart of the Radio, which I knew naught of, because I have just about zero interest in these everything-included retrospectives. They're the rawest kind of corporate profit-taking and collectoritis, plus I have more old music I love in my shelves than I'll ever hear again, plus I still enjoy a lot of new stuff. Second, the Byrds have not aged well. They were the true folk-rock, which means among other things devoid of groove--their drummer, Michael Clarke, was the most stationary of his time, and he had competition. And their best singer wasn't leader McGuinn but Lord help them David Crosby, who admittedly did end up making something of himself. They meant a lot in their time on the basis of "Eight Miles High" alone, I still like Notorious in particular, and Sweetheart is several tads more than OK, though if you want to hear somebody cover "You Ain't Going Nowhere" I suggest Maria Muldaur. Third, Gram Parsons was a genius and a superb singer and they weren't. If he says his vocals were better than McGuinn's I see no reason not to believe him because I'd be surprised if they weren't, though doing the compare-and-contrast mambo with a YouTube version of the mega-reissue got tiresome fast. The Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin remains one of my favorite albums ever. In addition to being a genius, Parsons was clearly cursed, and I'm very sorry he's gone.

[Q] For what it's worth, "It's Britney, Bitch" is the iconic opening line of her song "Gimme More." So while Gary K may have been a man appropriating the word, he was quoting a woman, and if it was supposed to sound cool, that's because Britney used it to sound cool. Why he thinks she ruled pop unchallenged from Madonna until Beyoncé I couldn't guess. On the other hand, you were dead on about Fantano's use of the word: sexist and hateful, and he should be ashamed. -- Ronan Connelly, Salt Lake City

[A] I knew this going in. But I've come to feel so strongly about "bitch" that I believe all men, gay men included, should make it a rule to stay away from it except in direct and explicit quotation. That said, however, it's certainly reasonable for you to alert readers who never think about Britney to this wrinkle.

[Q] Could you describe your audio system(s)? -- Faisal Ali, Toronto

[A] Not without great difficulty except to say that whenever I go over to Joe Levy's place I notice how much better his is. All my stuff is of quality without approaching audiophile standards I have no use for and would probably fuck up quick. For me what's important is its reach. My sound man is Perry Brandston, who I've known since 1966, when he was nine. He does sound for a living and is renowned for his knowledgeable and original and for just that reason eccentric setups. I have speakers in the dining room (formerly the living room "good ones," still loud and clear but now 30 years old), which abuts our open-plan kitchen and is where I do most of my joint listening with Carola. Early this year I replaced the finally kaput single workaday speaker in the bedroom, which is now mostly mine because for insomnia reasons Carola and I seldom sleep in the same room anymore (and Lord do I miss it), with an expensive one Perry recommended when it crapped out--there I hear music in mono. I have a quality but far from high-end hi-fi setup in my office and own a very good turntable I seldom use. But I also have Bose desktop speakers where I often check out stuff on Spotify etc. because I don't fancy the bother of crossing the room to punch the right buttons on my pre-amp. This was true long before I hit 80.

[Q] Overall, you seem pretty unimpressed with the Canadian music scene. While international artists like Neil Young or Arcade Fire are obvious exceptions, many of the most beloved bands inside the Great White North merit reviews that that range from tepid (Sloan, Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot) to caustic (Tragically Hip, Rush, K-os). While the indie rock scene here gets occasional honorable mentions, many key Canuck bands don't merit reviews at all (Rheostatics, Sarah Harmer, Lowest of the Low, Teenage Head), and the same can be said of not just punk (Dayglo Abortions, Fucked Up, Forgotten Rebels), but rap (from Choclair & Maestro Fresh Wes to Snotty Nose Rez Kids & Kinnie Starr) and electronic music (from Skinny Puppy up through Holy Fuck and A Tribe Called Red). Not that I'm not a fan of them all myself, or that your take is idiosyncratic, but I'm curious: do you have any thoughts about what it is about what it is that makes so much Canadian music of such strictly regional appeal? -- Jim, Toronto

[A] I love Canada. I had a long-distance romance with a Canadian woman I remember with great fondness and respect that I broke off when I fell for Ellen Willis in early 1966. But before then I visited her every few months in Toronto, Quebec City, and Montreal, where I first saw the Rolling Stones live in November 1964 and was amazed to walk past the bus station afterward and see more male longhairs than had yet materialized in the East Village waiting to return to the boonies. I covered the big Toronto rock and roll festival in September 1969, also the Stones there in 1975. I've vacationed with my family in Canada several times. And to my way of thinking I've also loved plenty of Canadian music, particularly Neil Young and (early) Joni Mitchell but going all the way back to the Guess Who's "Undun," one of the linchpins of my 1969 "In Memory of the Dave Clark Five." I'd assume that among the 14 acts named not in my recall memory there are one or two worth an Honorable Mention and zero worth an A, because I have a pretty good network. I would assume these would be "indie" or "punk," because most rock bands I like these days are. I would brag that I'd read Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers before he released his first album and point out that I've said very nice things about such alt-rock as Tokyo Police Club, Pony, and especially the New Pornographers, fourth on the Dean's List in 2017. I would note that I've given A's to such rappers as Shad, K'naan, Backxwash, and the great Buck 65. I would note as well that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation requires that its outlets promote Canadian music with disproportionate airplay. And I would wonder if, as I suspect, your hurt feelings go back to my disdain for the neither tragic nor hip Tragically Hip, the Great Mythic Unjustly Ignored Canadian Rock Band. Worse than Kansas, my sole review reported, and it doesn't get much worse than that.