Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Those Who Shared In Rock's Ascendancy Won (Alas)

A few weeks ago I glanced at the schedule of the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park, which opened Thursday and will continue through Sept. 2, and noticed something horrible. Out of 37 billings, only two excited me--the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin (even though I've seen both recently) and Bette Midler (a new enthusiasm) with two intriguing rock acts, Gun Hill Road and Moogy & the Rhythm Kings. Other shows appealed to the critic in me, not the fan: I ought to check out the Kinks and the new Doors, find out whether Poco really does put out a good time, make sure I didn't catch Dr. John or J. Geils on an off night. A few had mixed appeal: I can't stand Don McLean (Merry Clayton) (Harry Chapin) but I'd really like to see Bill Withers (B. B. King) (Arlo Guthrie). Sha Na Na? Melanie? Maybe, if I'm not at the beach that weekend. Ginger Baker and Buddy Miles? The perfect pairing; now I'll run twice as fast in the other direction.

This is not my weary imagination. Back in 1968, the festival was only half rock, yet that year the schedule included five double bills that turned me on: Moby Grape/Muddy Waters, Fats Domino/B.B. King, Mothers of Invention/Buddy Guy, Arlo Guthrie/Joni Mitchell, Little Richard/Chambers Brothers. Looking over that list makes me feel like some fogey or doomsayer, but I am neither. Rock isn't dying, I know, it just gets bigger all the time. In fact, that may be the problem.

This is not a putdown of this year's Schaefer Festival. Who can complain about music in the park for $2 top? The festival may not be the outpouring of unsullied corporate and municipal benevolence it is sometimes made out to be, but in this mini-epoch, comparative benevolence will suffice. Schaefer can harvest its publicity and the city can cool out its young people, both are providing music people want to hear at prices they can afford, and good for them. As for Ron Delsener, who has produced the series for seven years, he's as much of a prince as a music capitalist can be.

Delsener comes on a little straighter than most rock impresarios, which is only to say that he has fewer pretensions about what he is. The day I spoke to him, he was feeling very much a businessman. Bill Graham may eat weirdos for brunch, but when Ron Delsener is invaded by some nut screaming that there's a contract out for him in Brooklyn, he throws the nut out of his office, locks the door, and confesses that he has outgrown the glamour of show business--the nicest thing about it is the money.

"When this thing began," Delsener says, "I used to pray to God that there would be a Central Park Music Festival forever. I loved doing it, I wanted to do it every summer. Now it's just a job."

Delesener's gripes are standard close-the-Fillmore fare, but they bear recapping. Strangely enough, they all boil down to the fulfillment of a dream. All of us who shared the excitement of rock and roll's ascendancy have won. Everybody likes rock music. Because everybody likes it, the audience really has changed, and I have to admit that the change has not been for the better, although I am even more down on the staid sit-down concert consumers, (whom all producers love) than on the raucous more-music freeloaders. Because everybody likes it, big-time booking agents have moved in, and so it is more expensive; Delsener's talent costs have more than tripled since 1966, even though he now gets less important acts. And because everybody likes it, there is more of it, more specialized kinds of music for more specialized kinds of audiences.

That ought to be good, and in a way I suppose it is, but there are two major drawbacks. First, it makes the triumph of rock and roll more apparent than real. If rock has permeated popular music, it also has been absorbed by it. A folksinger accompanied by an electric guitar and bass and some conga drums is still a folksinger, albeit a livelier one. Most Latin rock and jazz-rock bands sound more like their prefixes than their suffixes to me, however modish they may make the polyrhythm and horn arrangement crowd feel. Second, it means that every genius who originates a style is bound to inspire imitators. When the style is rock and roll itself, that doesn't bother me. Rock and roll is my little weakness and my grand passion. But when it is women who play the piano and sing their own simple love songs--well, I adore Carole King, but Pamela Polland is an 88-key phony, and unfortunately, Ron Delsener can't afford Carole King.

It comes down to my major argument with rock orthodoxy. I think this stuff I love is (popular) culture, and they believe it's only music. Your average Rolling Stone reader will tell you that rock has matured because all the musicians can really play their axes. That's more or less true, too, and it doesn't matter. The Rolling Stones didn't learn to play until their fourth album or so, and even then they were the world's finest rock and roll band. And the Beatles, who didn't play so great either, were one better; they were the greatest group. Both understood that there was more to do than find a groove, please a segment of a vast audience, and flatten it out from there. They were compelled to grab us all. Today's musicians don't do that. But, then, just how do you hold on to something as big as rock has become?

N'day, June 18, 1972