Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Fall 1990 / Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly

House Mix

Hit and Miss

Are you experienced?: My deepest musical experience in years has been provided by my five-year-old playing cassettes ad infinitum in the back of the car. Of course, she's still young enough to manipulate a little--although I tape anything she requests (and am now an admirer of Icehouse's "Great Southern Land" as a result), she'll have to find out about metal, Raffi, and opera on her own. But it helps that she has great taste, especially in funny new wave--took readily to Blondie after getting into T. Heads and the B-52's via video, and now peruses Lester Bangs's picture book while singing "Call Me." She listens obsessively--for the first time, I'm sure Little Creatures holds up. And she listens close, concentrating till she breaks down just who sings and plays what. My wife and I can now hum "the guitar part to `Channel Z'" on demand. But we'd like to know who was in Ray Parker's backup chorus on "Ghostbusters."

Confession of an old fart: Properly motivated--by PE at the World, Papa Wemba at S.O.B.'s, even the Go-Betweens at Maxwell's--I'll stand up till the music's over. But I'd rather sit. In rock criticism, even if the spirit is willing and the ears stay clean, the lower back goes. Also the knees. Ow.

Fast Cars

Moving my car around dinnertime: I punch WBLS to hear Frankie Crocker soft-soap the ladies with the details of a Riviera sojourn or Morris Levy's funeral on "The Evening Bath." After almost 30 years I get the sense he's finally playing what he likes: everything. Soul, blues, jazz, rap, disco, quiet-storm; great black pop, past to the present.

Seizure Time

Woids, woids, woids: Why oh why do people think the words "record" and "album" can refer only to pieces of vinyl? CDs and cassettes are recorded, aren't they? They collect individual items into a convenient whole, don't they? In Big Sounds From Small Peoples, which deals mostly with nations where tape has ruled for a decade now, Roger Wallis and Krister Malm resort to "phonogram." And if ordinary English speakers don't shape up, we may be stuck with an even clunkier term before the world ends.

Jock Rock

Wait till next year: At Shea Stadium for the Mets' disastrous September 20 doubleheader, I half-recalled going there in true autumn recently. Now I remember. The Stones were a lot more fun and somewhat more athletic. Slide, Charlie, why didn't you fucking slide? (Not Watts--O'Brien.)

The Hard Line

Suck my dick: Bitch-dissing in rap is bad enough, but at least it's undercut somewhat by sexual need. Reflexive homophobia is worse--sick, ugly, ignorant. And anybody who believes it's a racist smokescreen for a white heterosexual to express his outrage is a slave of the politics of self-interest. Peace, fight the power, and so forth.

Man on a fuzzy tree: I'm a charter subscriber to the Mystery Train theory of "Hound Dog" and absolutely convinced that Elvis's miscegenated version of "All Shook Up" surpasses even the Deighton Family's. But anybody who thinks the King learned as much about singing from Ira Louvin and Lefty Frizzell as from Arthur Crudup and Otis Blackwell should step up and shake hands with Moe and Joe Flatbush. Vernon Reid 1, Erik Davis 0.

Inaccuracy in media: Speaking of Moe and Joe, there has yet to be a single protest directed at Mo' Better Blues's cruel caricature of the Five Percenter doorman at the oh-so-realistic jazz club where Denzel Washington enjoys his oh-so-realistic permanent gig. Get on up, Reverend Al--this is your constituency.

Food for Thought

Hot, hot, hot: Curry in a Hurry, 29th near Lex, offers a large selection of Indian cassettes. But that ain't what I buy there. I buy the cauliflower, the okra, the goat curry. World music is fine, but let's keep our priorities straight--world food is better.

Selected Cuts

  • "The Sky Is Crying" -- Sonny Boy Williamson, Keep It to Ourselves (Alligator)
  • "Love's Gonna Get 'Cha (Material Love)" -- Boogie Down Productions, Edutainment (Jive)
  • "Allison" -- Pixies, Bossanova, (4AD/Elektra)
  • "Hey Now" -- The Perfect Disaster, Up (Fire)
  • "Ben Crawley Steel Company" -- The Move, Message From the Country (Capitol)

Where Do These Go? (Unpublished?)

Tech hi-fi: The triumph of the CD was a scam, but this ain't New Coke or the Lone Ranger: the bad guys won. And what's scary about the victory is economic--well-heeled fans who make no apparent distinction between $7 or $8 and $12 or $14. Which is to say that my reservations about the configuration per se dissipated fast when I bought myself a programmable six-disc changer (a Pioneer, now on sale for less than what my Sony portable cost two years ago). Once I've programmed a cartridge I can't change my mind without risking computer literacy. But I love being able to pick exactly what I want to hear for the next hour or six. I can even even simulate the vinyl experience by programming one side--half a disc, that is--at a time. And for making tapes there's nothing like it. Especially if you get your CDs free.

The envy of all my friends: Cassettes are only two inches wide, so you can stick them anywhere without reducing room space--as long as you can store them upright, like books. Individual dividers for each cassette cost money, waste space, and force you to shift whole rows one by one every time you store a new tape alphabetically, which is the only way. My design: drawer-like, two-inch-deep, 30-by-40 boxes with half-inch shelving 4 inches apart. Made to order at an unpainted furniture place, they cost about 30 cents per cassette stored, an improvement over vastly inferior competing systems. Mass-produced they'd be even cheaper. (Sure they would.)

Ministry's In Case You Didn't Feel Like Showing Up (Live): a good live album and, more remarkably, a great concert video--the former are rare, the latter just about nonexistent. The directors (whatever that means--the thing's credited to "H-Gun and Dead Batteries, Inc.") exploit the band's stage-diving, fence-climbing maxicult as an image of cyberpunk future and vary the musical action with near-subliminal newsreel cut-ups rather than jerkoff interviews. Kind of scary, kind of funny, and very uncomfortable.

Village Voice, Fall 1990

Postscript Notes:

These appeared along with comments (not reproduced here) from other contributors: James Bernard, Steffan Chirazi, Kinky Friedman, Shinehead, and Vicky Wheeler. The pieces in the last section were not published at the time.