Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

James Taylor

Let us be candid about this. James Taylor's immense popularity has had only negative effects among fanatical rock and rollers like myself. About a year ago, a mimeographed rock fan-mag called Who Put the Bomp? ran a ten-thousand-word appreciation of the Troggs (remember "Wild Thing"?) by Lester Bangs, a rock critic as well respected as he is wild-eyed, which was interrupted by a long fantasy in which Lester himself snuck off to North Carolina and ran Taylor through with a broken-off Ripple bottle. That's how deep the feeling goes. Me, I only took the poster from his third album and ripped it into four or five pieces. Then I hung the face on my wall and scrawled upon it slogans from imaginary Maoist comic books, e.g.: "Eat felt-tipped death, capitalist pig!"

All of which is only to acknowledge that no matter how sincerely I try to clear my mind of impure thoughts--and I do--I am no more likely to enjoy a James Taylor concert than an Engelbert Humperdinck concert, and that furthermore this prejudice is not primarily musical. If James Taylor weren't so famous, he would be inoffensive, even likable. Upon sane reflection I recognize that he is a master of folk guitar, and that I even like some of his songs--"Fire and Rain," "Something in the Way She Moves," "Night Owl." What's more, his midnight performance at Radio City Music Hall Friday night won me over to several old compositions that I'd heard without listening, especially "Knocking 'Round the Zoo," about his stay in a mental hospital.

Friday night was a special occasion for Taylor. Like so many of the wealthier rock stars, he apparently suffers from a pathological fear of crowds and performs rarely--this was his first official appearance in New York in about a year, and no tour is planned. And just a few hours before the concert he took an even bigger step by marrying Carly Simon, of Elektra Records and Simon & Schuster. Several of his admirers remarked that he looked elated. I wonder what he looks like when he's going to sleep.

The combination of performer, audience, and surroundings produced a predictably genteel event. A back-up band of L.A. studio musicians called the Section played an introductory set of mildly jazzy instrumentals that were skillful, wooden, and quite sterile. Taylor's appearance did provide some real life, but on such a cooled-out level that it was perceptible only by contrast. Moving with the exaggerated calm of a very nervous person, he went through all the old favorites in the spoiled collegiate drawl that is his unfortunate vocal trademark. There was also what was apparently a ten-minute song cycle from his forthcoming album that on first hearing sounded ambitious, which is good, and more trouble than it was worth, which is not. His audience responded with a muted enthusiasm that never bordered on the rambunctious. Everything was polite. Taylor even introduced his sound man by name, and when his amplifier made an incontinent noise, he promised that it wouldn't happen again.

There are rock stars who pretend that every electronic squawk is the word of God made manifest among us, and rock stars who can't remember their sound man's name when they want to bum a cigarette off him. Understandably, Taylor and his audience react to such pretension and egomania. They are intelligent and liberal and good. They work for McGovern.

Essentially, though, Taylor is leading a retreat, and the reason us rock and rollers are so mad at him is simply that the retreat has been so successful. We assume that there is something anarchic in all of us, something dangerous and wonderful that demands response, not retreat. In some semiconscious was Taylor must understand this. He has written a brilliant parody of the macho white-blues fantasy, at once so attractive and so repellent, called "Steamroller." It is significant that he and his band and his audience could find no other climax to the concert. There was sweet baby James, singing rock and roll as if he meant it: "I'm a napalm bomb, guaranteed to blow your mind."

Another line of Taylor's interests me in this context: "I'm sure enough fond of my rock 'n roll." Me, I'm a lover, not a fonder.

Newsday, Nov. 1972
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

Four Pieces about Bob Dylan Cat Stevens