Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Whose People Were at the People's Inaugural?

There was one way in to "preferred standing room," and outside perhaps a thousand of us were packed into the kind of crowd that has a mind of its own, yearning for the promised gate. Fortunately, our fellow ticket-holders--lucky or well-connected party faithful, friends of friends, disappointed office-seekers, and second-line journalists like ourselves--had it in them to joke past the threat of claustrophobia, and we all got inside soon enough. Carola and I climbed onto a platform some 150 yards from the main event, thus gaining a clear view of the two-story television scaffold and the great seal of the inaugural stand. From ground level we could have looked up under the cameras and watched Jimmy Carter turn into a president. As it was, we heard it happen over the public address system. Did people really fight and bitch over such piddling access?

Perhaps it was the inadequate visuals that made the ceremony itself seem a low point of the two-and-a-half days of festivities we took in. But I don't think so. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," always a rousing tune, did indeed carry a nice symbolic zing when sung by a black Southern choir. But by that time the Methodist bishop from Atlanta who delivered the invocation had already compared Carter to Solomon, an analogy anticipated in Ruth Carter Stapleton's Bible reading at the interdenominational prayer service earlier that morning. In the absence of any actual rabbis, Old Testament references seemed de rigueur--Carter himself took his justice-mercy-and-humility quote from Micah--but looking through my own Bible I find one I consider more suitable: King Asa, who was praised by Israel's official historian but ended ignominiously. "In the time of his old age," Samuel tells us, "he was diseased in his feet"; I wonder whether they were made of clay, or just cold.

Opening the inaugural address itself with a bow to Ford--"I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land"--was admittedly a stroke, and if I'd been able to espy the president and his ex shaking hands "warmly" (that's what the Times said) the whole speech might have taken off for me. But nothing will convince me now that "new spirit" is destined to take its place beside "new deal" or even "new frontier" in the lexicon of liberal Americanism. One phrase, however, hit me hard: "If we despise our own government we have no future." The meaning of the inaugural hinges on just what kind of truth that axiom contains. I participate in electoral politics out of opposition to totally apolitical cynicism. But I know that only those who actively distrust their government are likely to lead their fellow creatures into an acceptable future. If Carter's talent for symbolism quickens some hope, that will be good. But if it lulls people into faith, that will not be good.

If you're not already very disappointed in Carter, this probably seems melodramatic to you. But I am very, very disappointed, which, since I never expected much, is saying something. I've defended Carter's religious beliefs in print, and I didn't hesitate to urge people to vote for him in private, but he was always obviously a chancy candidate. Rooting for him on election night was a little like rooting for Oakland against Cincinnati in the 1972 World Series. The A's were hirsute troublemakers who feuded with their owner and each other, the Reds disciplined professionals uncritically loyal to their crewcut manager. There was no doubt where my sympathies were, but my stake in the outcome was hedged--it wasn't really my team up there.

Baseball is, to be sure, only a game. But the presidency is also a game--engrossing for players and spectators alike but of minor importance in a human history shaped largely by economics--the difference is that it is not only a game. Some maddened jock could invade the opposing dugout with an ax and not commit a hundredth of the mayhem of a Joseph Califano opposing government-aided abortions or a Griffin Bell prosecuting justice "moderately." Even "good" presidents don't do half of what they might to make justice-mercy-and-humility real in the world, and if we've had a "good" president since I learned to read, they must have kept him (or her) out of the newspapers. That's why I'd spent Inauguration Day 1969 and 1973 in Washington--not as a journalist but as a demonstrator trying to remind my fellow citizens that Richard Nixon could be (a lot) "better." And Nixon's not the only one.

Before the benediction was over Carola and I were on our way to the scene of those tries. The Yippies had been keeping such a low profile--unintentionally, of course--that I had little hope of finding them there, but they were the only protest in town, and sure enough, as we approached the Washington Monument I heard the telltale echo of electric guitars. In 1973 the Times put our popular-front demo at 10,000 and my estimate was 25,000; in 1977 the Times made this no more than 150, and they were right. These were "hardcore malcontents," as their spokesperson fondly described them--mostly scraggly longhairs wearing Nixon masks made especially for this occasion in Hong Kong.

I expected the inauguration of Nobody (nominal head of the Yippies this year) to be as dull as the inauguration of Jimmy C., but in fact it offered unexpected pleasures. After all these years I finally got a nice dizzy rush from one of Wavy Gravy's breathing exercises. I was moved by an earnest teenaged anarchist who deserved something better. And I actively applauded the local band the Yippies had commandeered--since the band was clearly in it for the exposure rather than the politics, I will mention their name, Griffin, and then suggest they change it to Barbara--for having the will to psychedelicize as well as boogie, to make music with utopian ambitions as well as roots.

But that night I spent an hour at the Yippie gala at the Warner Theatre and the bubble broke. Oh, Paul Krassner and Bev Grant and Martin Sostre were there, but only because it was the only protest in town. The tone was set by Aaron Kay, who plays Abbie to Dana Beal's Jerry in the current Yippie setup. Kay once threw a pie at Daniel Patrick Moynihan but appears to have no other redeeming social value. For what seemed like 10 minutes he read a poem, written on acid, that may well have been entitled "Fuck You, America." "Rock and roll from the streets of Greenwich Village, rock and roll from the streets of Haight-Ashbury" was a major theme, and added to the traditional hagiology of Joplin/Morrison/Hendrix was original Yippie Phil Ochs. "We can do it again," Kay insisted, but no one in the meager crowd responded with so much as a right on--not when Kay himself could invoke only departed heroes and altered communities in summoning the spirit of rock radicalism. I wonder what he would have thought of the analysis offered by two young "friends of Chip's" who were the only tieless nonjournalists I was to encounter later that night at the Georgia Armory party: "If it wasn't for rock and roll Jimmy Carter wouldn't be president. He was out of money during the primaries and he just called up Phil Walden and said, `Phil, you gotta get me some money.'" Maybe knowing that's how it works these days is what makes Aaron Kay act so far out.

There's no denying it: The Warner Theatre bash was more depressing, deluded, exploitative, and trapped in the past than any straight event I attended during my time in Washington. I like Washington, love it in fact; in the old days it was my habit after the protests were over to visit the Smithsonian, and a couple of years ago Carola and I spent a brief honeymoon in D.C. So this year, despite my alienation from the aura of good feelings, I was inclined to enjoy myself. There was lots of adequate-to-excellent free music in libraries and museums, most of it arranged by the Smithsonian with aid from the inaugural committee; I was most impressed with New York's own Grupo Folklorico, which transfixed a lunchtime crowd. And there was a general friendliness that had definitely been missing in 1969 and 1973.

But for Carola and me the high point was provided by an Iowa farmer named Elmer Carlson, who put on three nights of parties for jubilant Democrats omitted from the official lists. The price was $35 a head, which might have dampened our enjoyment some, but Carlson, no wallflower, is committed to freedom of the press. So Wednesday night we ate the greasy hors d'oeuvres and got barely tipsy on four or five drinks and had ourselves a wonderful time. Dancing to the Duke Ellington Orchestra (veterans of only one previous inaugural, 1965's) amid a bunch of gleeful Midwestern squares was epiphany enough. To top it off the Oley Valley [Pennsylvania] Hoedowners clomped and clogged so fast and furious you could only be amazed that one of them was seven and another 70. Mercer Ellington himself looked bemused.

Carlson's party attracted a few Washingtonians who wanted to celebrate, a class understandably more common--dominant, in fact--at the free concerts. But most of the people we met Wednesday night were nice, unpretentious Democrats from Iowa. They were not, however, just plain folks. The two farm couples we spoke to owned 500 and 1000 acres respectively in an area where land can sell for $1500 an acre; even the retired UAW man from John Deere turned out to be a union official, the state chairman of a senior citizens' group, and the husband of a Carter delegate who had tickets to one of the seven official balls Thursday. This was typical. We encountered some civic-minded curiosity-seekers and a few tourists who might have come for the cherry blossoms, but in general the celebrants were celebrating a victory that excited in them some hope of spoils, if only in the form of a more favorable price-support program. I liked these people a lot--happy liberals tend to be very congenial, as do happy middle Americans--but I thought they were kidding themselves a little, and they did not give me the feeling I was communicating with the hoi polloi. It was a people's inaugural, sure; there was none of the parvenu pomp of one of Nixon's accessions. But most of the people were privileged people. And even these privileged people took a back seat to the inaugural itself.

This may seem natural enough, and empirically speaking it is, but in theory it needn't be. There's something a little sad about how peripheral all that lovingly assembled people's culture was for the inaugural visitors; the gala, the swearing-in, the parade, and the balls, those were the attractions. One can imagine a rite of transition in which the people might rejoice primarily in each other, confident in their freedom to assign a power they feel truly to reside in them, but although incoming presidents pay pious tribute to such notions, you can tell how seriously they're taken by the way the people themselves act. By wearing a suit off the rack and walking to the White House, by permitting Danny Aykroyd to cut him up a little on his own TV show, Carter gestured eloquently toward diminishing his own role as cynosure. But a cynosure is of course what he must remain.

Like most New York media people, Carola and I had passes to the Hilton Thursday night, but I wanted to go to the Armory. This was the Georgia do, the rock party, the president's last scheduled stop, and hence a hot ticket; it took a lot of hustling for me to score even one. Although I thought either Marshall Tucker or Charlie Daniels, two of the biggest names in Southern roots rock and roll, might occasion some surprising revelation or anomaly, my interest was the opening act, country singer James Talley, whose aesthetically satisfying but commercially perilous synthesis of musicality and overt politics has attracted me ever since his first LP appeared a year and a half ago. After Carter's nomination Talley sent the candidate both of his LPs; months later he learned that Rosalynn Carter had told Barbara Walters that James Talley was her favorite artist. Now he was playing an inaugural ball, the biggest boost in all of his career, and I wanted to see how the Georgia populists would like him.

Well, he was an opening act. A few danced, a few listened, and two young workers from Common Cause, at the party on a friends-of-friends deal, were so impressed they asked for info when they saw me taking notes. But most of the guests, already a little boisterous in their best celebrating clothes, drank, talked, and kept their eye on the center aisle. Talley was cut short and Guy Lombardo set up--Vice-President Mondale would be arriving early. The crowd pressed toward the center, Talley's wife Jan and me along with it. The music began. We gained an obstructed view of Mondale's forehead as he advanced slowly across the floor. Then we watched him speak from the stage along with everyone else.

A few hours later a rousing set by Marshall Tucker was also interrupted by Guy Lombardo's roadies--the president would be early as well. There was a general migration from Talley's dressing room all the way to the side of the stage, where people who'd been occupying their positions behind the ropes for hours complained that we were blocking their hard-earned view. We retreated graciously; a good view was not what Talley had in mind. Whispers. Consultations with the Secret Service. Walkie-talkies. Yes, far backstage would probably be easiest. Suddenly, Talley's fiddler John Sayles came bounding down six steps at once: "She wants to meet you, she wants to meet you." And then the meeting actually took place.

It lasted several minutes. What was most impressive was that Carter clearly knew who Talley was, even asking a question about the cover of his first album; in retrospect, however, I sometimes wonder if he remembers the cover and nothing else. In any case, Rosalynn was a fan, recalling how she'd put the records on when they came and just couldn't take them off. Talley gave the president several copies of his third LP, pointing out a song called "Up From Georgia." Carter confided that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was one of the few books he'd brought north with him. There were handshakes all around (I was included, if anyone wants to be jealous) and much popping of flashbulbs. A friend predicted the incident would be on the first page of the Post's Style section the next day. Unless I missed it, it didn't make the paper at all.

I doubt that that matters much to Talley. The man was stunned, visibly moved to think that his music had reached all the way to the White House, and although the night before I'd become uncomfortable over the way he'd shunted all of my questions about Carter's cabinet off to Jan, I couldn't blame him. Talley had achieved what tens of thousands of visitors to Washington were really there for--a brush with power even greater than their own. Moreover, Carter had been at his best, and at his best he's a very impressive man. The only thing is, I think James Talley is a pretty impressive man, too.

Village Voice, Jan. 31, 1977