Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Loser's Lounge ventures into the present and other dangerous conceptual realms

The Loser's Lounge, which convenes every few months at Fez to honor a rock-era songwriter, is a goof that evolved into a modestly profitable sideline for keyb man Joe McGinty and his permanent floating backup band the Kustard Kings. With its one-song-per-singer format, it's also a cunningly choreographed showcase where strong-piped inhabitants of the music-biz fringe can escape the vexation of selling themselves in a buyer's market. McGinty is a pop guy rather than a rock guy--Burt Bacharach kicked off the series in 1993, soon followed by Jim Webb, Henry Mancini, Neil Diamond, Carole King. But gradually he and his troupe of karaoke overachievers ventured out toward the Kinks and Fleetwood Mac. When a friend celebrated her birthday at the 2001 Roxy Music show, I was happy to give it a spin.

I expected snarky and I got it. But snarky can be fun, and in addition I got rock criticism in action. The finest moment came toward the end. Though hardly a standout among competing veterans of the voice-lessons wars and sympathetic semi-stars like John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants and Craig Wedren of Shudder to Think, McGinty always reserves a gem for himself--in this case, "Mother of Pearl." Stage business had a bunch of Losers yakking at a party that suddenly disintegrated, leaving McGinty alone in his white tux with a look of panic on his face. He was Bryan Ferry stripped of faux-froid on his quest for love in a looking-glass world. But he was also a piano player compelled to sing a classic he knew was beyond his reach. And when he combined these two realities, "Mother of Pearl" wasn't beyond his reach anymore. He earned it by seizing it--the way Bryan Ferry earned his cool.

This moment replicated the way pop fans make songs their own, but it also evoked Ferry's very specific persona--his hauteur and the fear it always masks. When I went back for Nilsson, however, no such revelation ensued, and I never returned. Right, Paul Williams and Serge Gainsbourg don't float my boat, but I have an appetite for learning. And Rod Stewart, XTC--they could have been interesting. But Prince Memorial Day weekend I couldn't resist--not because he's the great pop musician of our age, just because he's of our age.

Inevitably, the Loser's Lounge flirts simultaneously with jaded camp and romantic remembrances of a golden age. But not all classics are stuck safely in the past, and Prince's new hit album proved it. So as the Kustard Kings launched "1999," I felt a whoosh of excitement--and within 30 seconds the air went out of it. The song just wasn't taking off--the Kings couldn't nail its groove. It looked like a long night, especially after Peter Salett, whose website boasts of his "plaintive melodies and harmonies" and his top-five hit in Thailand, unveiled the first of many insufficiently creamy falsettos on "When You Were Mine." And then something embarrassingly obvious happened. McGinty announced a Loser's Lounge debut in a duet with the sexiest Loser, willowy backup chick Connie Petruk: direct from backstage at Conan O'Brien, Eric "Badlands" Booker. Booker was big, fat, and--most important, I'm afraid--black. He did the rap from "I Feel for You" so straight he could have been auditioning for American Idol.

Amid a predictable complement of unacceptable substitutes and forced sex-u-ups, there was great camp at this show: an "If I Was Your Girlfriend" in which two male aspirants for Joanna Choy's affections wound up smooching, for instance. There was also great singing: Lianne Smith's perfect steal of Sinéad O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U," or portly, business-suited Jed Parish unleashing his high end on "When Doves Cry" like a porn star pulling out his Package, or Edgar Martinez lining a double off the wall. And when Wendy Ip was so foolhardy as to essay the dance part of "Kiss," she had the moves to take it over. But the night still would have dragged were it not for debuts by five African American singers: after Booker, Marcy Harriell's stirred-not-shaken "Tamborine," GTO's tear-the-roof-off "Housequake," Carlton Smith's souled-up and crowd-rousing "Lady Cab Driver," and, best of all, a "Gett Off" by a compact ball of fire named Kim Loren that was as comic as Nick Danger's "Jack U Off" without wasting a volt of the song's erotic charge.

I knew without checking that Loser's Lounge had never before risked testing its own vitality against that of a still fully active honoree (although some would claim Elvis Costello counts). But the main way Prince's contemporaneity inflected this show wasn't all that metaphysical--it was by forcing everyone involved to confront the fundamental rhythmic remaking pop has undergone since the songwriters McGinty's subculture loves walked the marketplace. And something even deeper was at stake. What I didn't know until I checked afterward is that not one of the 30 or so of these songwriters to hit LL before Prince was African American--no Smokey Robinson, no Curtis Mayfield, nobody. Loser's Lounge began in an era when "lounge" was a more freighted concept than proved supportable, partly in transparent, unadmitted reaction against pop's Afro-American canon. And the Losers still prize that aura of sophisticated hip. The five singers who saved the show didn't top the regulars' ambition, or even love--as Susan Sontag put it, "Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature." But they were longer on pride, and also on shamelessness: on an unquestioning determination to move the crowd.

The show I saw was opening night, almost a dress rehearsal. A week later, I hear, Fez patrons were dancing in the aisles.

Village Voice, June 22, 2004