Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock Theater

And we speak of things that matter
In the words that must be said
Can analysis be worthwhile
Is the theater really dead?
--Paul Simon

I was never able to answer Dangling Paul's question because by the time he got around to asking I had abandoned the correct habits of my college days and stopped going. And so it is not surprising that I declined to attend the opening of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road," making that evening a matched set with the new book about rock opera that I choose not to own. Rock opera, rock musical, rock theater, or (as Tom 0'Horgan tags his latest venture) "rock spectacle"--it's all the same bushwa as far as I'm concerned. My idea of a good night out is to go to the movies.

The main exception to this should of course be live music. But, music no longer seems compelling to me, not as a phenomenon. I can imagine a renewed interest in jazz, which varies more acutely from performance to performance than any other music, sending me back to the kind of venue I used to haunt in the 60s. But it's been a long time--going back to the heyday of the Fillmore, a good half-decade ago, when every Grateful Dead show held out the promise of an invigorating communal event--since I've been able to distinguish pleasure from business on the club-and-concert circuit, I used to seek epiphany; now I hope for satisfaction and often don't get it, maybe this is just because critics get jaded, but if so, we're not the only ones. That's what "rock theater" is all about.

From the rock side, the formalization of the music's natural dramatic content is a way for discontented, status-hungry musicians to quell the incipient discontent of the fans. From the mostly inane skits of Alice Cooper to the full scale pretensions of David Bowie, these attempts escape failure only when they slop over into self-parody, as in Alice's phallic toothbrush routine--if Bowie's kitsch surrealist posturings qualify as theater, so does putting your hands over your eyes when you get to the line about not being able to see. This kind of failure reflects not only small talent for conventional stagecraft (acting, pacing, set design) but also a refusal to understand that the major conceit of true rock drama is its unstagedness. Jerry Lee Lewis was not some entertainer impersonating a crazed redneck, he was a specific crazed redneck entertainer named Jerry Lee Lewis; James Taylor is a beloved performer because his gawky reticence is presumably not a performance. To emphasize the self-conscious role-playing that actually goes into such acts is to destroy their essential truth, and yet that's what arty-farties like David Bowie insist upon doing. His fans may believe themselves dazzled, little enough to settle for, but I suspect they are merely impressed.

The impulse towards rock from the theater side makes more sense--at least to anyone who prefers rock to theater. Even more than other established arts, 20th-century theater has dreamed of a debourgeoisification that young-and-sexy rock--with its associations of orgy and ritual, its simultaneously massive and communal audience--seemed to achieve with no effort. In fact, of course, this version of the music was a romantic hyperbole. Inevitably, good rock bolstered bourgeois culture even as it rebelled against it--Twyla Tharp's Beach Boys piece, "Deuce Coupe," the most aesthetically successful rock theater ever staged, was a send-up of that contradiction--and when it managed to approach some sort of temporary dionysian utopia, it did so by dint of a disciplined commitment that was often lifelong. Epiphany is not achieved by dancing to an Otis Redding record or putting a Fender bass and a long-haired drummer in the orchestra pit.

In essence, though, that was all "Hair" ever did. Before it degenerated into a tits-and-cock show for outlanders, "Hair" justified itself as a moderately amusing and ebullient goof. But the term "rock musical" was always sheer hype. Raddo and Ragni wrote electrified show tunes for musical comedy singers on the level of Lynn Kellogg, who is currently desecrating "Midnight Train to Georgia" in the boites. Two of the three hits they originated--the 5th Dimension's "Aquarius" and the Cowsills' "Hair"--define supermarket rock, while the third, Three Dog Night's "Easy to Be Hard," is a pop ballad that might have been composed by Stephen Sondheim on a good night. "Jesus Christ Superstar," the source of Helen Reddy's "I Don't Know How to Love Him," was even further from the truth.

0'Horgan's move from such one-dimensional schlock might seem to bode well. But although "Sgt. Pepper" is thought of as the most influential of all rock masterpieces, it is really only the most famous. In retrospect it seems peculiarly apollonian--precise, controlled, even stiff--and it is clearly peripheral to the rock mainstream. (The "concept album" idea was embodied more fruitfully--and earlier in "Rubber Soul.") For O'Horgan to borrow music from "Sgt. Pepper" and "Abbey Road" is to hedge the orgiastic bet in favor of conventional notions of theatrical coherence. Unfortunately, this does not mean that O'Horgan's spectacle has any more plot or thematic continuity than the album did, but it does mean that the passion of the players and the involvement of the audience does not compare to that of the most ordinary rock event. It's not surprising that when O'Horgan feels the need at for a boogie number to climax his show, he resorts to "Get Back," the most rhythmically atypical of all Lennon-McCartney's late compositions.

Since it's obvious that most newspaper drama critics would not catch the logic and pace and irony of, say, a Rolling Stones concert (neither would most newspaper rock critics) I was not convinced or cheered by the pans "Sgt. Pepper" received. But after seeing the show last week, I thought John Lahr's praise even more misguided. Artistically as well commercially (the Beacon wasn't one-third full on the fourth day of the run) "Sgt. Pepper" is a flop.

Given the precedents, the quality of the music was acceptable, despite the swinging lilt that snuck up from the West 40s to undermine "With a Little Help from My Friends." But the singing was totally unsatisfactory. Musical comedy inflection, most egregious in the dulcet emphases of Kay Cole and B.G. Gibson, was not the major problem. In general, O'Horgan has hired genuine rock voices. But a good rock voice does not mean good rock.

Star Ted Neeley, formerly J.C. Superstar, isn't as instructive an example as Allan Nicholls, who plays one of the demonic trio, "Maxwell's Silver Hammermen." (How like O'Horgan to elevate a McCartney crotchet into symbolic significance.) Nicholls is a small star in his home town, Montréal, where he used to lead a fair-to-middling group called the Carnival Connection. Since advancing to the lead in "Hair," he has excited big-time producers as perceptive as Andrew Loog Oldham, Eddie Kramer, and Rick Derringer. He has also recorded for eight labels, which is about five too many. The man is talented, but the fact that he is willing to sing Beatle songs in versions that are second-rate by definition indicates why he is a failure as a rock star--he lacks the gift of Jerry Lee Lewis and (yes) James Taylor. This gift involves ego, self-image, usually with a songwriting correlative. It is the compulsion to play oneself. Whatever drama Nicholls projects has nothing to do with the true theater of rock.

I am aware that this sort of theater has become as passé as the somewhat fatuous 60s doctrine of the free and integral self. The reaction is the kind of role-playing practiced by the paparazzi-fuckers who dominated the opening of O'Horgan's show. (Paparazzi-fuckers are would-be future celebrities with little or no access to the mass-distributed electronic media where real celebrities hand out. They hope to attain such access by getting their pictures in the papers.) To a limited extent, I approve of such reaction--role-playing has always seemed an essential part of life to me. But the paparazzi-fucker conceit (life-player identifies with mask) is already as tired as the Pirandellian conceit (actor or playwright doffs mask). I continue to prefer naturalistic conventions.

This does not indicate, however, an unwillingness to enjoy spectacle, especially a spectacle which inspires the sort of playful communal abandon that John Lahr reports occurred among the paparazzi-fuckers and paparazzi-fucker-watchers and just play theatergoers by the close of "Sgt. Pepper"'s opening night. O'Horgan's production does an injustice not only to what I have described as rock theater but to the Beatles' music--aurally, only Alaina Reed's soul version of "Come Together" and Nicholls's opening phrases on "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" opened up any of the familiar songs for me; visually, only O'Horgan's centerpiece, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," took on any new weight. But these injustices become immaterial if the production manages to create a reality, or a spectacle, of its own.

By Wednesday night, all the reality in the theater had to be created on stage--the audience was small, silent, and uncomfortably confused. And while certain of O'Horgan's projections (strawberries over brainflesh) and props (hammerhead hats) caught my fancy, most of them seemed like tacky distractions--only from what? The wicked-landlord looks on the faces of the Hammers and Hammeroids and the modified-hora choreography and the glitzy decadence of the bad guys may have been intended as tongue-in-cheek but came off tongue-in-mouth. None of my rock acquaintances got what Lahr got out of the opening, and by now I feel certain that this wasn't defensiveness or oversophistication. I've seen more interesting costume textures, for instance, at (of all places) rock concerts--Bowie's cunning work with tweeds and raincoats and hats at the Garden, even the way his Philly-soul backup singer tucked his bells under the tongues of his platform loafers at Radio City, and certainly the phantasmagoric glitter of Labelle at the Met. Talk about spectacle . . .

Odd, isn't it, that Tom O'Horgan seems to have delivered me of my weariness with live music? As a phenomenon it may be moribund, but that's nothing new--there are still snatches of life to be had within, and if "Sgt. Pepper" is any indication of what theater has come to, I'm grateful to be on a circuit where I can catch most of them. I understand Labelle is taking that Met show to Boston. I suggest to John Lahr that he take a look.

Postscript Notes:

Don't have publication citation for this one. Tom O'Horgan's production of Sgt. Pepper was staged in 1974, so that provides a first approximation of the article date.