Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock Critics

By Richard Goldstein

By Arnold Shaw
Crowell Collier

By Nik Cohn
Stein and Day

By Paul Williams

Edited by Jonathan Eisen
Random House

Nothing fails like success. Rock music, nÚ rock 'n' roll, after struggling manfully (young manfully, of course) through a flood of exposure, must now prepare for a deluge of documentation. The books listed above represent the first wave, and their arrival all at once--there will be half a dozen more by autumn--signals the end of a phenomenon, its formalization, so to speak.

No doubt about it--the excitement has waned. But this does not mean that the music itself has degenerated, nor that it is in any real danger of abandonment by its core audience. On the contrary, its spoor is everywhere. Rock has effected a startling transformation in America's adult popular music, so that what Jack Jones does today can be traced directly to what Fats Domino was doing ten years ago. (A recent album by old farina-voice contains three songs by Randy Newman, a brilliant young Los Angeles composer who counts Fats as a major influence.) Some soft-rock groups--the Association, the 5th Dimension, Simon & Garfunkel--have invaded the middle-of-the-road market themselves. And rock is the heart of at least three overlapping kinds of youth music--the teeny-bopper and soul fare of AM radio, the heavily amplified white blues which currently dominates the concert circuit, and the more pop-oriented rock of older groups like the Byrds, the Who, and (most prominently) the Rolling Stones. The Beatles, of course, are everywhere.

There is no better gauge of the unflagging importance of rock for the young--nor of the variety of a music which seems so undifferentiated from the outside--than the volume of specialized journalistic coverage it still receives, coverage which should continue as long as the younger generation remains bohemian. It is a rare underground medium--a category which includes not only the dozens of community journals (almost all of which are supported by record advertising) but the college anti-papers and even the mimeographed or Xeroxed high-school and Army-base handouts--that does not give space to two or more rock commentators. The Village Voice has ten or so. Most teen and fan magazines feature serious or pseudo-serious discussions of rock and one of them, Hit Parader, has become a respected organ. Eye, a Hearst-backed hip-youth magazine centered around rock, survived a predictably pallid year, then folded like its much hipper competitor Cheetah, and Crawdaddy!, formerly "the magazine of rock," has recently transformed itself into "the magazine of roll," whatever that means. Rolling Stone, however, guided by an ambitious young critic-entrepreneur from San Francisco named Jann Wenner, seems likely to end up as solid (though not as boring or limited) as its jazz counterpart, Down Beat, which is admitting rock into the canon itself these days, as is Jazz & Pop, formerly just Jazz.

What this means is that young writers have more outlets for rock criticism today than for fiction. The rock critique has become a major form, although a lot of this writing is more interesting as cultural sample than as criticism, representing as it does a kind of generational exploration in an art preserve the writers correctly regard as their own. The style is term-paper rap, and the tone especially in the underground, falls somewhere between cultural demagogy and hebephrenia, a sort of post-adolescent fan frenzy. Anyone who recalls the film writing of Jonas Mekas in his palmier days at The Village Voice will make the connection with the Voice's Annie Fisher. This is not to put down enthusiasm. Like Mekas, these writers are valuable propagandists, and since their judgments are hit-or-miss, they do often hit, sometimes with salutory effect. In New York, Annie Fisher has been the making of an underrated San Francisco group called Mother Earth; Bob Rudnick and Dennis Frawley of the East Village Other have inveighed valiantly against the "super session" fad; and Vince Aletti of Rat has put in a good word for the great soul duo, Sam & Dave, who have yet to achieve the success they deserve among whites. Nevertheless, the general imprecision is maddening. Most rock musicians now take long solos to varying critical applause, but only rarely is there even an attempt to define what makes a good solo, of the difference (if any) between a good jazz solo and a good rock solo, or of why solos belong in rock at all.

To an extent, this is inevitable. Because popular art is aimed at a broad audience, it must succeed in a lot of ways if it is to succeed at all, and because it is not designed to last there is reason to wonder whether the standard artistic test, that of time, applies. In rock, which (for a while, at least) was the music of the entire left side of the generation gap, and which depends for much of its power on effects which can only be called kinetic, subjectivity comes naturally. No wonder there is such confusion. The only valid question a rock "critic" really can ask himself is "Did it get me off?"

Nevertheless, some critics describe how they get off better than others. In general, these writers--Richard Goldstein, Paul Williams, Jann Wenner, Jon Landau, and others--were into rock before it became fashionable, not just in the mid-Fifties, when everyone listened, but in the pre-Beatle Sixties, and certainly before late 1965, when the Beatles began to go arty with Rubber Soul. Although they represent varying attitudes and approaches, they do share certain values. Rock was homogeneous when it attracted them, implying an aesthetic which emphasized tight, brief songs, unpretentious lyrics, and a driving beat--the tightness in contradistinction to jazz, the kineticism in contradistinction to folk. (Rock's artistic development has been an elaboration of these motifs, sometimes of one of them at the expense of another--for instance, the overwhelmingly loud rock solo, which is anything but concise, intensifies the power of the beat.) Wenner and Landau excepted, none of these critics knew from harmony and chord structure, and they still don't. Those things just don't matter.

Partly because of his instinct for self-promotion, Richard Goldstein is the best-known rock critic, and the best-hated. Goldstein's uneven, assertively personal style invites resentment, but he is one of the best--sure he overwrites, but so does Dylan. Goldstein is more a columnist than a critic, occasionally extraordinary when he gets down an ambience or makes an offhand remark, occasionally awful when he deals in abstractions. The Poetry of Rock, a compendium of lyrics which does not contain much of his own writing, shows what there is of it at its best. The introduction touches all the bases--rock is sound first and words second; it has its traditional themes and diction; it may not be art and who cares?--and most of the brief descriptions that precede the lyrics are just right: "`Yakety Yak,' or: How Leiber and Stoller reduce the generation gap to an unbroken, unheeded chain of commands." Despite inevitable quirks of taste, and disregarding some difficulties with song publishers (which is why the book contains no Stones compositions), the selection is excellent, and the dubious enterprise of isolating lyrics from music works, at least for someone who knows the originals.

It is only in the final section, "Allegory and Beyond," that the collection breaks down. Very few writers in rock can handle Big Themes unless they do so in a Small Way. Phil Ochs' "Crucifixion" and Paul Simon's "Sounds of Silence" and Janis Ian's dreadful "New Christ Cardiac Hero" ("Your virgin red crown of thorns had turned to ivory horns") all suffer from elephantiasis of the ambitions. Of course, so does Goldstein's writing; only someone who could speak of a "curvaceous sermon" or of work that is "tapped profusely" could single out Jim Morrison's "mute nostril agony" for special commendation. Goldstein's worst writing, like the worst post-Dylan songwriting, seems to reflect hand-me-down dicta from some college poetry course: concretion is better than abstraction, evocation is better than description, metaphor is better than simile, and simile is better than nothing. But his good sense and affection for the music always pull him through.

Like Goldstein, most of the young critics show an instinct for the music that overbalances any na´vetÚ. Older writers, intelligent and with the best intentions, are usually so overwhelmed by the discovery that rock is worth thinking about that they (a) idealize it or (b) miss its spirit entirely and then praise it for irrelevant virtues. Arnold Shaw, a journalist-musicologist who was working in the music business when rock began, has written a historical book called The Rock Revolution which theoretically should avoid these pitfalls, since it is about what rock is. Unfortunately, Shaw seems neither intelligent nor well-intentioned, and it is tempting to blame this on his age: rock just isn't his thing, and he can't pretend otherwise. Anyone who can confuse the Shirelles (black and soft) with the Shangri-Las (white and tough) as Shaw does, can't possibly care much about rock and roll. The Rock Revolution is obviously thrown together from press releases and secondary sources, and contains few interesting or original organizing ideas. Shaw falls victim, for instance, to the common fallacy that the burst of energy personified by Elvis Presley in 1956 soon petered out, only to be reincarnated by the Beatles. Actually, American rock and roll, led by Motown and the Beach Boys (not to mention producer Phil Spector, whose "wall of sound" is dutifully listed--inventor and all--in Shaw's rather pathetic glossary, but who is never mentioned elsewhere in the book), was making a comeback before the Beatles; only someone who doesn't realize that fact could write a history of rock that grants one paragraph to Chuck Berry and six to Janis Ian.

What a comparison Shaw's book provides to Nik Cohn's Rock From the Beginning. Cohn is a twenty-two-year-old Englishman who had never visited the States when he wrote this book, yet his rendering of Shaw's subject is accurate, funny, well-written, and filled with love. Where Shaw plods arbitrarily through long lists of almost indistinguishable performers, Cohn manages to find the quote or detail that turns what might be an indifferent account into a full vignette, showing as especially poignant sense of the evanescence of pop stardom. Where Shaw justifies rock by comparing it to other and implicitly better things, Cohn presents a consistent vision of what rock actually is. This vision is a special trick of the English--it is, in fact, the essence of the early Beatles. The English tend to see rock as both very raw (rawer than it ever was) and hilariously commercial: a never-ending gangster movie. Cohn revels in the meretriciousness and sexuality of rock and roll, deploring all but some very peculiar convolutions of sentimentality and almost anything that smacks of Art. Even in terms of this limited view, Cohn makes mistakes--his (correct) notion that the South engendererd most good rock and roll affects his ability to judge East Coast rhythm-and-blues, he doesn't understand the twist, and he is unfair to Memphis soul--but it is unlikely that a better account of the music to the time of folk-rock will ever be written.

Cohn is also excellent on the Rolling Stones and the Who, both of whom have applied coherent style to an idea of rock very similar to his own. But despite a good chapter on Dylan, whom he despises, he seems temperamentally unable to deal with the recent romantic florescence of rock in America. In Outlaw Blues, Paul Williams does that half of the job perfectly. Coming to rock out of the Cambridge (Mass.) folk scene, Williams founded Crawdaddy! as a seventeen-year-old Swarthmore freshman, and Crawdaddy!, in turn, spawned Jon Landau, Sandy Pearlman, Robert Somma, and Richard Meltzer, the strange genius who was thrown out of the Yale graduate philosophy program when he insisted on entitling all his papers "Rock and . . ." Now Williams has collected some of his own Crawdaddy! pieces plus the third installment of a long rap about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Williams is a lovely writer, but not because of his felicity with words. It is rather the total ingenuousness of his approach--casual, cheerful, pragmatic, serious, and very young. (He was twenty-one this year.) He is perceptive about the music but that is not the point. As he writes in his preface, "Rock to me is not a phenomenon at all--if it is, that fact is not significant--rather I see rock as a means of expression, and opportunity for beauty, an art. So what I have written is expression, not explanation; an attempt to convey what I feel from the music, an exploration of what rock does to me." The book is just like that, full of silly art talk. Yet finally in a subtle, even adult, way, Williams achieves his goal.

Both Outlaw Blues and Rock From the Beginning succeeded the way rock itself succeeds, by a kind of synthesis: their weaknesses provide the best context for their strengths, like Billie Holiday against those awful strings, remember? The analogy can be extended: Cohn's idea of rock is rigid, formal, and so he conveys his own truth within the strict form of musical history, while Williams, more flexible aesthetically, simply gathers some old essays, adds a gratuitous title, and comes up with a book that reveals what it is like to mature in a world in which rock music and the rest of experience coexist more or less equally.

A collection called The Age of Rock, edited by Jonathan Eisen, contains five good pieces from Cheetah (plus one of mine on rock lyrics) as well as five equally good ones from Crawdaddy!, including Richard Meltzer's "Aesthetics of Rock"; the latter would justify any collection. Beyond that, there are also the classic come-gather-round-all-ye-over-thirties essays on the Beatles by Richard Poirier and Ned Rorem, both cogent and convincing and badly off the mark in tone and detail, and some other stuff that is even more stodgy. It is in fact the perfect rock textbook, and anybody who wants one of those should go right out and buy it. As for the rest of us, there remain the Cohn and the Williams and the Goldstein, and, even better, a few records, five or so: Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits (Chess); A Package of Sixteen Original Hits (Motown); The Beatles' Second Album (Capitol); Happy Jack, The Who (Decca); Crown of Creation, Jefferson Airplane (RCA Victor).

Harper's Magazine, Sept. 1969