Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Looking for a Mindset at CMJ's Special Apocalypse Edition

La Lutte Continue

It's not even 10 on a Wednesday at the Village Underground and I'm already into my third band of the first night of the CMJ Music Marathon (Special Apocalypse Edition). Radical chic or not, the black power and La Lutte Continue posters on the walls of Steve Weitzman's West 3rd Street lair have always had more character than the chic chic of Joe's Pub, where I've just been admiring Amy Allison's wordplay, and the rocker louche of the Bowery Ballroom, where the surgical masks Clinic affects suddenly looked like streetwear. And right now the posters also serve to contextualize the big American flag behind the stage--as does the Chomskyite Gulf War screed installed in the stairwell.

Onstage contextualization is provided by a weathered local trio called Big Lazy, and they're doing it without uttering a word in a live set more gripping than the Cachaito Lopez, Ass Ponys, and Joe Strummer shows I've caught over the previous week. The bare-skulled leader-guitarist contorts noisily and precisely, the double-jointed standup bassist plucks plenty and bows when it's called for, the black-garbed drummer bashes out one tricky beat after another. At this gratis, ill-attended "promotional" gig they're not sure they should have bothered with, the smart soundtrack noir of their eponymous CD turns fierce--Tin Hat Trio with hard-hat brio, Tortoise in a bunker instead of a bote, Mingus by split decision over the Raybeats. They're very New York, and perfect for a time so more-than-words-can-say. "Do we have some nerve or what?" asks guitarist Steve Ulrich of their Mingus cover. It's the third time he's opened his mouth, after "We played Tel Aviv back in the spring and they actually invited us back in October. Hah, hah, hah," and a sneak intro four songs in: "Let's hear it for New York," followed after the yells and whistles by, "This is called 'Just Plain Scared.'"

Originally scheduled to begin September 12, CMJ is one of thousands of New York businesses imperiled by the attack on its onetime home, the World Trade Center. In late 1999 founder Robert Haber had sold the magazine that hosts the 20-year-old alternative music conference to an Internet company hungry for, you remember, "content." Last April, he staved off corporate death by buying it back. Haber expected a quick shot of cash from the Marathon; instead, he'll take a hit, and let's hope he gets the disaster relief he deserves. Only 150 preregistrations canceled, but many were no-shows-attendance from overseas was very sparse, and West Coast bizzers have developed an aversion to airplanes. Even worse, walkup business, normally 4000 young hedonists from all over the country, was down to zilch--local zilch. In September acts like Coldplay, Ben Folds, and the Strokes were in place to goose badge purchases; all had to be elsewhere October 10 through 13, leaving booker Chris White with a foreshortened schedule heavy on New York acts. Nevertheless, after September 11 I actively wanted to cover--where better to trade tidings with my people? Panel director Megan Frampton had no idea of my plans on October 4, when she asked me to moderate this year's final panel. With the overwrought wondering loudly how CMJ dast convene at all, the title she came up with was properly sober: "What Is the Role of Entertainment in Times of National Tragedy?" Public morals having slackened slightly by the time I was handed the ball, I just thought of it as "Music After the Fall."

That, of course, was CMJ 2001 in a nutshell--and a riddle all New Yorkers share, one way or another. Even as we wait for that next shoe, we long to get our lives back. Only what lives, exactly? Checking in with the reliable Rosie Flores at the Rodeo Bar on September 21, I was glad just to be among people who wanted to go hoo-hah on a Friday night. But I expected more of bands with more to offer, and never ended up with the inspiration I craved--not even "Rock the Casbah" from Joe Strummer, a dose of unfulfilled prophecy about the secularization of Islam that does not, repeat not, advocate the bombing of minarets. Instead he struck the wrong note with "Police on My Back," though who knows how long that will be true once the Afghanistan peace marches get serious (watch It wasn't fair to Cachaito Lopez that I spent half his set debating Chomskyites in my head. But that was the mindset he was up against--a mindset Big Lazy acknowledged even before Ulrich said so, just by being intense and edgy and New York.

So for three or four days I prowled the Hilton and the downtown clubs on the lookout for that mindset, and its absence. Somewhat to my surprise, though I got used to it, absence dominated. And as I sat through bits or wholes of 15 panels and 17 acts, this soon came to seem more health and strength than crassness or denial. In many respects, starting with it not being mobbed, it was a fun conference, and a well-conceived one. Hooray for the 20-minute lectures on such crucial matters as "Performance Royalty," "Selecting a Manager," "Fanzine Basics," and "How the CMJ Charts Are Compiled." And although a few panels were deadly and/or empty, many weren't. A goodhearted hip hop free-for-all starred Deena Barnwell, the Oregon radio DJ who was fined seven grand by Bush's FCC for playing a feminist rap with bad words in it, and Guru of Gang Starr and Jazzmatazz, who reported that he supported his family by touring as himself. At the DIY panel, Chicana singer-songwriter Lysa Flores broke a dozen hearts by letting slip that she was engaged. A press panel made up almost entirely of writers talked almost entirely about writing. A dozen lucky punters heard the clearest discussion I've ever encountered of two immemorially bullshit-prone topics--distribution, alt-rock's Holy Grail, and the Internet, its Holy Ghost. Everywhere there were kids getting on with lives bound up in music, and elders holding onto same, with a lot more attention to skills than hype for once.

Intermittently, "September 11" or "the WTC" or "the current situation" would surface. The hip hop panel produced one of the rare direct questions, which Guru answered by reporting that his New Jersey neighbors had finally started saying hello and opining that in his old hood terrorism was a fact of life. But mostly it arose as specific business difficulties, or black humor, or nervous interjections into hallway schmooze. Clearly, people were trying to concentrate on the biz at hand. And since panel attendance had been uneven--often full, never SRO, sometimes ridiculously low--I wondered how many interested parties wanted to hang around midtown for mine, which would supposedly climax the Marathon's talkathon after everybody had lunch on Saturday.

We drew better than I'd feared--just about SRO, in a big room. Those on the other side of the podium tell me we talked OK too. I laid out contradictions and broke down the musical question into business (transportation, recession), political (civil liberties, effective protest), and artistic (escapism versus realism). MTV's Tom Calderone talked quietly about the cravings of a post-Live Aid, post-Gulf War audience for information, comfort, and a way out. Rolling Stone's Joe Levy argued for serious sarcasm in a time when no one knows what reality is, and reminded us that inner lives have to change before art does. Israeli-born techno artist Raz Mesinai (a/k/a Badawi) threw away his prepared remarks to tell us about a Yiddish-speaking anti-Zionist Hasid with a picture of Madonna in his wallet, the airplane sculptures of murdered WTC artist-in-residence Michael Richards, and his credo: "Music is music, music is hope, making it is hope." Iraqi-Cuban manager-promoter Fabian Alfutany, whose deal to bring Ricky Martin to Lebanon has gone up in smoke, foresaw impassable visa problems for world music artists when America needs them most and doubted MTV offered much succor to young Hispanic, Arab, and Indian Americans. Iraqi-French Canadian Newsweek critic Lorraine Ali, who was vacationing in Cairo September 11, declared herself incapable of covering music in a nation that ignores the thousands of civilian deaths U.S./UN sanctions inflict on Iraq every month.

To sum up, Danny Goldberg, now president of his third record company, showed what great meeting he takes by responding to and expanding on everyone else. He defended Enya, Britney, and MTV's news function, told how one of his artists had changed a line about blowing up the neighborhood, and spoke up for music done cheap while never seeming like anything less than the well-to-the-left free speech champion he is. "Artists need to go where their consciousness goes," he insisted, probably not for the first time. "Art and music are part of the solution." Then those on the other side of the podium had their turn, describing their loss and their healing and tarrying predictably but appropriately in dovetailing folkie and alt-rock media critiques. As throughout this CMJ, self-promotion was minimal--I didn't get to exercise my authoritarian streak until a young woman volunteered to close out our session with a song. Siddown, sister. Music is hope. But as Goldberg also said, "Trite as it is, we need to have conversations. There's no evidence that life gets better without conversations."

I hadn't been seeing enough of my family, so I watched the Yankees win for the city before going out that night. Fronting Delaware and San Francisco's insane Zen Guerrilla, gigantic, flab-gutted Marcus Durant sustained a gallumphing MC5 imitation for over an hour. He called everything he liked "sweet." He pretended to bugger his guitarist. And as we cheered wildly, he called us--in shtick that for all I know he's rolled out for years--"the strongest, bravest, most sensual people in the world."

"I'll tell ya what," Durant said. "I'll tell ya what. The city of New York . . . I can't even tell ya. This is blowing my fucking mind."

Click here to read Robert Christgau's opening remarks at his CMJ panel.

Village Voice, Oct. 30, 2001