Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Dazzle on the Spot

This was one of four contributions to Bookforum's Greg Tate (1957-2021).

I was reading so much about Greg Tate after he devastated my cultural cohort by dying way too soon that before long I found myself craving prose he'd written himself. So to get back to the good stuff I resorted like almost everyone else to a literary form I always complain gets too little respect: his collections. Sadly, there are only two as of now, which seem findable as I write but may disappear for a while so get on it: 1992's well-loved Flyboy in the Buttermilk with Simon & Schuster, which almost everyone who's been singing his praises mentions, and 2016's more obscure Flyboy 2 with Duke University Press. I read both avidly as soon as they were in my hands but never wrote about either, the first because as Greg's first Village Voice editor I was one of five dedicatees, the second because I was working on a Duke collection of my own. But in the present context I figure I can do what I please, which is to input a tone-setting selection of Tate's prose from each. With Flyboy in the Buttermilk I can begin right at the beginning: 1981, Tate's first year at the paper, bounced off P-Funk's George Clinton to lead into "Knee Deep in Blood Ulmer," who lest you've forgotten was and remains a harmolodic guitarist then just beginning his legendary period.

The Funk has gotten uppity and gone "universal" on the everyday brothers and sisters, contaminating realms long defunked, namely black and white bohemia. Always eclectic, now it's "funk-wave"; always hip, now it's 'avant-funk'; always a ho', now funk's crossed over with a brand new pimp (introducing Dick Dames and the Prophylactic Band). Funk used to be a bad word, now everybody's trying to get knee deep. These days there's a lot of funkploitation going down. But don't read me wrong, 'cause pimping The Funk ain't bad per se--truth is, pimping it's always been half the game plan.

My second selection is altogether gentler, and doesn't sound like anyone who'd make pimping his game plan. Instead it's in the voice of a musician whose family values Tate would remark upon in other contexts later on: the first two grafs of a verbatim interview with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, which follows the Amiri Baraka farewell assigned by Ebony that opens Flyboy 2. Only three times in six pages is Shorter's rap interrupted by questions, which is as it should be.

Every Saturday my mother used to come home from work (she had two jobs) and she'd bring clay, watercolor, and X-Acto knives. My brother Alan and I, we'd sit in the kitchen at a round table making Captain Marvel Jr., the Frankenstein monster, the Wolfman. One time we tried to make the whole world. He made a hundred people and I made about 150. We also made the Second World War. Remember the Red and Blue Armies in Russia?

There was a guy named Jimmy Tyler from Jersey City, New Jersey. He played almost exactly like Charlie Parker. And that almost made a wide void for me. The trying makes the void. And he was trying, but he got caught by the wayside. He got distracted by the so-called other elements of nature, not so organic. Along with others that age. I was sixteen, seventeen, didn't know nothing about how to intercept, how to save somebody's life.

I once summed up the secret of bebop as "the casually hyperintelligent aura of guys sitting around talking to each other." To me, Tate's 1985 Wayne Shorter interview, uncollected until 2016, puts that metaphor into action. It's not the first thing we who love Greg's verbal dazzle and high-tone trash talk associate with him. But without positing an absolute dichotomy, the evidence of my recent collection-skimming suggests that as Greg got older he also got mellower and more humane, emphasis on the more because no matter how bumptious his rhetoric there were almost always warm feelings and an occasional chuckle nearby. All of us who edited him at the Voice became accustomed to how effortlessly he seemed to mix the tone of the screeds he generated, so that he could sit at a keyboard and devise some dazzle on the spot to patch a hole or right a stumble some overseer had groused about. Did he sometimes just let it roll out of him unbidden? So it seemed to most of us.

I saw too little of Greg after his fiftieth birthday party on 125th Street, where I did my ofay best to read a recent piece of his I'd admired. But it's definitely my impression that in the fourteen years since then he'd mellowed some without losing a step intellectually, spiritually, or aesthetically, and without surrendering many laughs, either. His death too soon was a loss to all of American culture. Here's hoping and predicting that in his vast oeuvre there are at least two more collections waiting to happen.

Book Forum, Dec. 14, 2021