Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover


May, 1968: Dylan-Beatles-Stones-Donovan-Who, Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield, John Fred, California

The thing about Phil Ochs is that he's unquestionably a nice guy. He's so sincere, you know? It's impossible to dislike someone who can annotate his own record with eight poems by Mao Tse-tung and the inscription: "Is This the enemy?" Too bad his voice shows an effective range of about half an octave, almost no dramatic quality, and a built-in vibrato that makes it sound warped; too bad his guitar playing would not suffer much if his right hand were webbed. Very bad indeed that he has learned so little from Mao Tse-tung's poetry, which is terse and understated, but instead has adapted Mao's political theory not to politics, where it at least holds its own, but to music. Phil Ochs is a musical Red Guard. Revolution in the (cultural) revolution--his musical leaps forward are doing him in.

Ochs has always made a joke of his admiration for his old friend Bob Dylan, but it's no joke: Dylan is a dangerous man to admire. He has a genius's full quota of excesses, and even in his folky period Ochs displayed every one: indifferent melodies, hypertrophic images, philosophical crudity, etc., etc. Then Ochs discovered the Beatles, who he said "set a level of pure musical sound that is a tantalizing carrot to many an American group." And then, dutifully, he bit.

Not only did he fail to get the carrot, but he helped pull the wagon into a bad rut. Pleasures of the Harbor, his most recent and most popular LP, epitomizes the decadence that has infected pop since Sgt. Pepper. Cluttered with gaudy musical settings that inspire nostalgia for the three-chord strum, it is "artistic" but never artful. The lyrics, socially conscious at a level one convolution beyond that of the rich liberal who hates himself because he hates himself for being a rich liberal, can most tastefully be left undiscussed. And to compound all this the record is 52:13 long, with one side containing three eight-minute . . . works. Popular songs rarely run over four minutes for a reason: Without a narrative (as in a ballad) or a great singer (like Mick Jagger) or a sophisticated but available structure (as in Jim & Jean's version of Ochs's own "Crucifixion") it becomes geometrically more difficult to sustain interest at about that time. Not impossible, mind you--those attempts that succeed (like "A Quick One While He's Away" or "Like a Rolling Stone") are marvelous indeed. But those that fail, like "Pleasures of the Harbor" and all the rest, are enervating bores. Good intentions are never enough.

This is all brought into rich relief by Bob Dylan's long-awaited John Wesley Harding, which will doubtless stand as the funniest album of the year. Even if it failed as music (it doesn't), it would succeed as strategy, and that would be enough. Pop music does not exist in the future. Immediacy is its most salient virtue. and at the moment there couldn't be a more salutary record than John Wesley Harding.

Dylan had not been heard from since May, 1966, when he presented his work at its most involuted, neurotic, and pop--and exhilarating--in Blonde on Blonde. Then he racked himself up in a motorcycle accident, went into hiding, and inspired a legend. But while he was away, the music in which he has been a prime mover continued to evolve--and mutate. Art and Social Commentary were absorbed, almost painlessly, by the world's schlockiest business, so that the trade journal Record World could review a new single as "a highly commercial rock allegory of perishing society." Apparently, society itself would perish before the record industry.

All this was made possible by the charismatic rebelliousness of the brightest pop stars. For them, terms like "highly commercial" were irrelevant; they were highly commercial, however, they chose to manifest themselves, and the industry could just hangdog along. The luminaries had a double goal: to find their own thing and to make sure it was heavier than anyone else's. A Heavy Thing. Thus, the Beach Boys arrived at something unique and almost perfect, Smiley Smile, but because it was so slight, it was outshone by the Doors' muscular but misshapen Strange Days, and in eight months the Doors came from nowhere to reign as America's heaviest group.

Dylan, of course, does not operate on such a modest level of competition. His only rivals are the Beatles and the Stones. In his absence the Beatles redefined the contest as (a) conceptual and (b) musical. Everything had to be placed in an abstract framework--even cover art was the pop star's responsibility--and while good lyrics were important, new music was even more important. For lesser talents, these preconditions usually insured that "heavy" meant "overburdened." No one was sure how they'd affect Dylan.

It should be added that Dylan does not necessarily relish combat. His retreat emphasized what was already clear: He would rather do his thing in private. The spotlight puts him off. Only the odd happenstance that he is an entertainer, forced by the nature of his thing to compete for public acclaim, induces him to fight at all.

So he fought and won, by redefining the rules of war. His battle cry was the album's title, as kinky as "Greensleeves," and his standard the jacket, done in gray and featuring a Polaroid snapshot of the artist and some friends in the woods. Turn it over, and there are the song titles, six on a side, just like Lawrence Welk. There are notes by Dylan, not as willful as usual, but still the first written comment on a major album in several years. And then the credits--three musicians all told, drums and acoustic bass and (for two songs only) steel guitar, plus Dylan on acoustic guitar, harmonica, and (twice) piano. Psychedelic!

The title song opens the record, introduced by a few passes at the guitar that sound no different from what Dylan was doing at nineteen--a little more subdued, perhaps. Then bass and drums enter; they provide a beat, but they also remind us that the record was not resurrected from the 1963 reject can. Such a reminder is necessary, for on first hearing, John Wesley Harding sounds monotonous, old-fashioned, and very folky.

In fact it is all that and represents a starting artistic advance anyway. Instead of plunging forward, Dylan looked back. Instead of grafting, he pruned. Dylan's work has always been marked by derelictions of taste that have become almost an endearing trademark. He has never hesitated to fill the meter with a useless word or to wrench tone in the service of rhyme. Much of his best work is simply too long, like Clarissa or Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy. Despite all the talk about "poetry," Dylan has always been a word-crazy dramatist; his "images" are mostly situations full of incongruities and awkward in syntax and diction. Even his best stanzas seem ready to burst like waterlogged beanbags. But on the new album Dylan has learned the value of understatement.

Only one of the new songs, a ballad, runs more than five minutes, and nine of the remaining eleven are under the two-hundred-second mark so dear to radio programmers. They have only three stanzas. Diction is spare, traditional (almost all the songs function as parodies), and abstract. Everything is so careful that a well-placed detail or linguistic self-indulgence carries the weight that a whole stanza used to, so the familiar sense of unreality prevails, reinforced by the fact that many of the songs seem to end in the middle. The Dylan flavor is unquestionably there. But it has been achieved for the first time with no waste of materials.

This is also the most impersonal record Dylan has ever made. Persona has always been important in his work, but this time the "I," when it appears, is almost anonymous. And although the songs seem obscure, they are often quite straightforward: Whatever other levels are also present, "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" is still really about working-class protofascists, Tom Paine is really a character in "As I Went Out One Morning," and, in "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," that big old moon really does shine like a spoon. But the directness of attack is so uncharacteristic that it undercuts itself, becoming a source of mystery and surprise--imagine, a Dylan album that is most admirable for its straightforwardness.

When John Wesley Harding was in the stores for a week, it had already sold 250,000 copies--Dylan's fastest moving album on mystique alone. Let's hope everyone listens, too. Let's hope that songwriters, instead of deciding that folk (which this is not) is in again, will learn to concentrate on line before they attempt oratorios, and that the fans will finally be weaned from some of our more excessive poetasters.

Dylan seems finally to have found his own ground. Almost alone among the pop stars, he no longer comes on like a questing adolescent. Politically, he is neither the true believer nor the dropout. His country accent has never been less self-conscious or more effective. The piano and steel guitar work better than four sitars and a Moog synthesizer. Only the harmonica is occasionally intrusive, and I'm sure we'll all forgive him that--after all, he probably planned it that way.

This is not a better record than Sgt. Pepper, but it should have better effect. It is mature work that still shows room for rich development. If only it were so easy to say that of the Beatles.

Ah, the Beatles. They also have a new album, Magical Mystery Tour, and let's blame it on Capitol Records and the Maharishi, shall we? Six of the eleven songs have already been released as singles, so it should prove a boon to those of you--too many, I'm afraid--who don't own a forty-five spindle. Of the five new ones, three are disappointing. The title tune is perfunctory, and the instrumental, "Flying," just a cut above Paul Mauriat, not bad but not Our Boys. In between is "The Fool on the Hill," which shows signs of becoming a favorite of the Simon & Garfunkel crowd and the transcendental meditators, who deserve it. A callow rendering of the outcast-visionary theme, it may be the worst song the Beatles have ever recorded. Paul should know better by now. Yet the album is still worth buying--for all the singles, which are good music, after all; for the tender camp of "Your Mother Should Know"; and especially for George Harrison's hypnotic "Blue Jay Way," an adaptation of Oriental modes in which everything works, lyrics included.

A reservation and a warning. This music was written for the Beatles' forthcoming TV special and may sound better once we see what goes with it. But if Paul McCartney's work on the film clip of "Hello Goodbye" is any indication, we would be wise not to hope for too much. We can't expect them to do everything. Can we?

Last fall we were all in a tizzy over the imminent visitation of sub-Beatles I and II--the Rolling Stones and Donovan. The problem was work permits, always a ticklish question because of union requirements and compounded because both the Stones and Donovan had been in drug trouble in England. Keith Richard was sentenced to an incredible one year for allowing marijuana to be smoked in his home; nothing has been done about the conviction, but it stands. Mick Jagger received three months for possession of pep pills he obtained in Italy, even though his own doctor approved their use, and the conviction held, although sentence was suspended. Donovan had been arrested for possession of marijuana, but charges were dropped--reportedly because he was busted in the company of another pop big shot, and how much bigger can you get? In any case, no one was startled, though everyone was suitably outraged, when Dirty Mick was refused his permit. Donovan had not been here since his arrest in the summer of 1966, and his reputation as an antisocial tough was not expected to help. Then--surprised--he slipped through.

I was traveling at the time of Donovan's concert tour and never got to see him, but the reports were interesting. His father, Mr. Leitch, a jovial, bankerish Scot, handled the introduction and lit the incense. Then son Don himself appeared in white robes, scattering flowers. A reverential hush would greet his performances, which elaborated the jazz feeling that had always been present in his vocal style. He inspired no riots.

Myself, I have always been suspicious of Donovan. He is a subtle singer and has written many fine songs, but something in his photographs, something sullen and stupid about the mouth, has always turned me off. The appearance of his Big Concept album confirmed all my suspicions and aroused some new ones about why he was allowed into the country. The album is a two-record set, about an hour of music. Title: A Gift from a Flower to a Garden. Donovan, of course, is the Flower--someday he will gaze too long at the mirror and turn into one. Those consumers with $9.99 plus tax comprise the Garden. Where the Gift comes in I don't know. On the lavender-and-blue box are two color photographs of "the Author." In one he is holding a peacock-feather fan and looking as tough and sanguine as a fish's belly; in the other he is holding hands with . . . why, it's the Maharishi! Isn't that sweet?

Inside is another color photo--the Author with lily pads--all the lyrics ("Nothing to censor here, sir!"), and an "art portfolio" of the songs from For Little Ones, billed as a children's record, though it isn't all that easy to distinguish from Wear Your Love Like Heaven, which Donovan describes as "music for my age group, an age group which is gently entering marriage." That's from the dedication, called, "Oh, what a Dawn Youth is Rising to," the simpering of which could only be properly conveyed by massive quotation. Here's the key: "I call upon every youth to stop the use of all drugs and banish them into the dark and dismal places. For they are crippling our blessed growth."

What happened to Donovan, assuming he's sincere, is that he thought he could satisfy all his inchoate yearnings through chemistry. Then he discovered that watching your own head take a lot of time and doesn't really satisfy the yearnings, so he exercised his logical faculty and came up with "Drugs are Evil." No wonder the powers that be let him back in. Kids who would never take that jive from a narc may just believe their Don.

Yet, strangely, the new records aren't bad. Donovan has undertaken the same sort of pruning operation as his old exemplar Dylan, albeit for more simpleminded reasons. His archaic fetish is much less annoying now, and while the tang is gone--none of the mystery of "The Fat Angel" or the compassion of "Young Girl Blues" or the cynicism of "Season of the Witch" or even the sheer exuberance of "There Is a Mountain"--nothing grates anymore either. A little sickly sweet is all--For Little Ones should amuse anyone who has never watched the Saturday-morning cartoons more than the Saturday-morning cartoons do. The singing is much better than the material, the engineering intelligent (great overdubbing on the best song, "Mad John's Escape"), and if Donovan's strength of mind can be summed up in one insipid line--"Oh, gosh, life is really too much"--we can still hope that by the time his generation harshly enters divorce he'll be ready to please our brains as well as our lazy ears.

But before we give up on pretentious pop, we should listen to the concept LP by the banished Stones. The title--Their Satanic Majesties Request--establishes their untarnished arrogance immediately. Like all their work, this album has its parodic side--the 3-D double-fold cover, for example--but as always, the intonations of Jagger's voice are decisive, and as always, they imply a critical distance from the material. (When Jagger sings, "She comes in colors," you have every right to infer a psychedelic orgasm; when Donovan sings, "and come if you can," you know it's only for tea.) Don't let the lovely new soft sound fool you--this is hard stuff, all about distance, really, in time and space and spirit. Despite the obligatory production job (a few of the effects distract, but most work) the songs are as good as ever, hummable even. And wonder of wonders, the major innovation--the group improvisation that occupies five-minute chunks of both sides--is reasonably successful.

Yet the album might be better. The Stones, with their ad-libbing and street noises, are clearly more interested in the music of chance than the Beatles. Such interests are doomed almost by definition to partial failure. If only they could look back and prune--but their work has been so tight that the attempt would have to end in self-parody. The Stones have no need of that.

I miss the radio. Only a year ago, WMCA in New York was my link to pop music and hence the world; now that labels concentrate almost entirely on albums, so that the Vanilla Fudge and Jimi Hendrix make top ten without ever having a hit single, it just doesn't mean as much to me. I've always regarded rock and roll as propaganda, a way of turning on the kids, so I'm disturbed that so many of its best people are giving up on the huge market in favor of the more dependable limited one.

Peter Townshend, of the Who, misses the radio, too, but for different reasons. Ever since Harold Wilson served socialism by shutting down the pirate stations, there has been only one rock outlet in Britain--B.B.C.'s Channel One, beloved of the Petula Clark fans. Now Townshend has come up with an album--not so much a concept album as an anticoncept album--that is a tribute to the departed Radio London, a reminder of where it all began. The Who Sell Out has sound effects, all right, but most of them go with station breaks and singing commercials. The songs are softer--Roger Daltrey's hard lead is often subsumed in falsetto harmonies, and the finale, "Rael," is as close to mysticism as the down-to-earth Townshend has ever come. "Tattoo" is soft, too, but has that homely Townshend feeling. It's the best song he's ever written, worth the price of the album, which establishes the Who as the third best not just in Britain but the world.

Beyond such mundane concerns is Dionne Warwick's Golden Hits Part One, her first consistent album, as essential to your collection as Sgt. Pepper. If that's something you don't need to be told, you might try Dusty Springfield's The Look of Love. Most of it is up to the high level of the title song and the other, smaller hit, "What's It Gonna Be?" She even salvages a très smelly torch job by Rod McKuen and Jacques Brel, winners of this year's Kahlil Gibran Sounding Brass and Tinkling Cymbal Award for Hip Cliché Density. Why doesn't the Maharishi go after them, anyway?

Those of you who can't admit to yourselves that, actually, you kinda like "Judy in Disguise" ought to buy John Fred's album, Agnes English. It's the kind of LP that could happen only at a company like Paula Records (Shreveport, Louisiana). Fred--his surname--has assimilated everyone from the Beatles to Percy Sledge in his own way. The album has about half-a-dozen first-rate cuts (mostly written by Fred, who also coproduced), and you can dance to it at parties. Try that with Richie Havens.

Finally, three California awards. Comedown of the Year: Country Joe & the Fish: I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die. Comeup of the Year: Buffalo Springfield, Buffalo Springfield Again. High Record of the Year: Van Dyke Parks, Song Cycle.

Esquire, May 1968
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

Columns: Dec. 1967 Columns: June 1968