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.

May 24, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

The King of the Gentle Blues Singers, uncountable grooves and subgrooves, brevity, a fun job (as jobs go), octogenarians who keep on truckin', and Carola's favorite science-fiction novels.

[Q] You've reviewed several great country blues compilations and many key artists in the genre such as Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Charlie Patton. Just wondering if you plan to review these other major country blues performers who also deserve recognition: Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, and the underrated Reverend Gary Davis? -- Henry Chung, New York City

[A] The one name you left out of your reasonable query and the bluesman I play most often is the gentle Mississippi John Hurt, who has four reviews on my site including an A plus that hasn't proven the one I grab, though now maybe I will (sounded good, natch). The ones I've liked best are the early Avalon Blues and the very late Last Sessions, now part of a Vanguard threefer. Checked out Blind Willie McTell some after Dylan wrote his song of that title and found him less than compelling. I like Gary Davis but have never felt the need to parse his catalogue, which is rather large in part because he settled in Queens and was an NYC folkie favorite. I've never written about Robert Johnson because he's a titan with such a complex story that doing it right would require weeks of listening and comparing as well as reading and rereading. But I play him fairly often--let the record show that my housemate never says no to a blues record. In this connection I recommend Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta, which makes a point of Johnson's debts to the pop blues of the mid '30s. Also recommend Brother Robert by Annye C. Anderson, a retired schoolteacher who was 92 when the book came out in 2020. She was really a stepsister, but she did spend serious time with him as a girl in Memphis.

[Q] Your explorations into African music since the 1980s have opened up this world to many of your readers. I wonder if you've ever dipped into the genre of Pacific pop? Much of it was influenced by American dance-band leader Eddie Lund, who arrived in Tahiti in the 1930s, recorded many groups and wrote or arranged countless tunes; he never left. In Tonga, musicians took up the lap steel guitar which became synonymous with the region (along with eight-string ukuleles). The sound was a big part of New Zealand pop when it started being recorded from the late '40s. -- Chris Bourke, Wellington, New Zealand

[A] I've obviously written about many variants of "world" music over the years, but just as obviously African musics have long predominated, and why that should be is obvious too--as an American music fan who grew up on rock and roll with a minor in jazz, I have a special feeling for music mostly developed by the African-Americans who far more than any other ethnic group have turned American pop into an international music. And then I can go further--the defining secret of African-American music although hardly its only strength or attractive usage is rhythmic, and even though there's enormous variety among the countless pure and also hybrid Afropop substyles, almost all ride their own uncountable grooves and subgrooves. Why it is I can feel and respond to so many of these grooves I don't know; as I've said many times, I'm not much of a dancer. But apparently I do. And be it Brazil or China or the Balkans or, well, the Pacific, no other culture is likely to provide that kind of aesthetic payback even though I often enjoy those musics too. So if I find an easy way to to hear Eddie Lund I'll give him a shot. But it seems doubtful he'll change my musical life in any material way.

[Q] It seems like everyone who's ever written for you says you're a magnificent editor. Any trade secrets you'd like to share with those of us whose skill level has topped out at "employable"? I'm sure one of them is to read omnivorously. -- Tom, Maryland

[A] I expect there are a lot of omnivorous readers who are nothing special as editors, but let me see what I can patch together. To start I'd say that you have to respect and if possible empathize with the writer's intentions except when they're patently wrong-headed or ethically objectionable--I once assigned a Yellow Magic Orchestra review to a writer who thought it would be funny to transpose all the L's and R's and stormed off for good when I told him rather sharply that it wasn't, but subtler and often unintentional racial, gender, and other stereotyping is a commoner problem. You should reread as carefully with the writer once you've marked up a piece as you did the first time alone--which means, that's right, that if you can't be in the same room as the writer you can at least edit on the phone rather than by email. Be on the lookout not just for clichés but for stronger or more interesting language, and if you see a joke by all means suggest it. If an idea cries out for development talk that possibility through. Double-check any fact that you're not sure is accurate. Brevity is always a virtue, and when you need to cut for space take a careful look at the lead, which will often include some throat-clearing. On the other hand, if you need to cut for space don't be afraid to cut a word here and shorten a clause there--that stuff adds up. When you need an ending reread and try to find a phrase or thought that could stand some reiteration--that echo effect can do wonders. And oh yeah, reread Strunk & White. It's not scripture. It's not even always right. But it will always sharpen your thinking a little.

[Q] How do you handle those days where you have a certain amount of albums to review but are preoccupied with other matters and thought, "I'm just not in 'Dean of American Rock Critics' mode right now"? Are you able to set personal matters aside while you're reviewing albums? -- Chris, Belford, New Jersey

[A] You romanticize what my reviewing work is like. Painful life crises or competing entertainments aside, I play music every minute I'm home or out alone with my headphones. But note that playing it means I'm hearing it not that I'm listening to it. In fact, for music I'm hearing to catch my ear so that I concentrate on it and listen carefully is fundamental to how I make judgments. That music inspires attention is my first clue that it may be worth writing about, because usually that means I'm enjoying it. Then I try to concentrate and find out how that grabs me. Then I find out how it holds up to repetition. And somewhere in there I start to concentrate on and isolate and maybe analyze my degree of interest or pleasure, gradually getting a grip on its skill or substance or beauty or energy or lyrical acuity or any combination of the above. And sometime in that phase comes the work phase you imagine where I say to myself you're the dean now nail this one. Except that whether or not I'm the dean is usually irrelevant. I'm just a critic, doing what critics do. Which is a fun job as jobs go.

[Q] Ever since you turned 80 I've had a question in mind for you, and I'm finally asking it before you turn 81! What musicians in whatever genre have continued producing worthwhile work at 80 or so -- David Allen, Claremont, California

[A] I can think of a few. My 84-year-old friend Peter Stampfel contracted a vocal disorder called dysphonia in 2017 at 78, 17 or so years after he'd conceived and begun his oft-delayed 100-song Peter Stampfel's 20th Century in 100 Songs and maybe three-four years after he'd started work on it again. Basically, he couldn't really sing anymore. Yet he could whisper and whistle and sometimes simulate singing and he somehow finished the thing. Chuck Berry's excellent farewell Chuck, released shortly after he died at 90 in 2017, was recorded well after he turned 80. The New Orleans trumpeter Doc Cheatham recorded 1992's The Eighty-Seven Years of Doc Cheatham, when he was pushing that age. He also backed classic blueswoman Alberta Hunter, who enjoyed a circa-1980 three-album revival when she was around 85. Barbara Dane, who in 1973 put out an album called I Hate the Capitalist System, released the much sexier Throw It Away in 2016, when she was 88. Tony Bennett is not only in his nineties but has Alzheimer's yet has his timing and knows the words on his two Lady Gaga collabs. And of course there's the miraculous Willie Nelson, now 90, who by my count has released some dozen-plus albums in the past decade, some of them--December Day and A Beautiful Time are my picks--among his best ever. Paul McCartney will be 81 in June and I doubt he's stopped. Ditto I hope for Randy Newman, who'll be 80 in November. And Paul Simon, now 81, just released an ambitious album I've yet to get my teeth into that certainly has something to say. I probably could come up with more possibilities, but that should do for now.

[Q] What are Carola's favorite science-fiction novels? -- Harold, Brooklyn

[A] As Carola put it when I passed the question along: "I'm not exactly a hardcore science fiction reader--put any mystery in my hands and I will probably finish it but in science fiction I may get so confused I stop. I checked out then-recent SF when I was writing The Only Ones but no one novel stands out except maybe Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. My favorite two all time would be Samuel Delany's Dhalgren and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. Frank Herbert's Dune was probably the first SF I got into, and back in the '70s I was quite interested in Kate Wilhelm. Then, no special order--many Ursula LeGuins but let's say Left Hand of Darkness, many Kim Stanley Robinsons but let's say Shaman. Bruce Sterling influenced me and rings my chimes in general, but I'll just mention Zeitgeist (which I reviewed), and the cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades. I like William Gibson but no one novel in particular. Hard to pick any single Philip K. Dick so I'll just note one I rarely if ever hear discussed: We Can Build You, where these guys who are making human beings get in legal trouble so they make Abraham Lincoln so he can be their lawyer. More currently, I really like Kelly Link, who may technically be slipstream or fairytale. And I once did a reading alongside Sandra Newman, whose The Country of Ice Cream Star I loved so much I didn't even have time be be jealous."