Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Weird Scenes After the Gold Rush

A Grateful Dead concert at the Felt Forum is post-flower America reveling in its contradictions, but Dominique was reminded of the Soviet Union, where the queue has not withered away and elbowing ahead of your comrades is a national pastime. As we pushed on in toward our complimentary third-row seats, the crowd got heavier and so did the contradictions. Dead heads--heavy music proles and suburban folkies and old rock and rollers--comprise a confusing combination of our fabled new community and the nightmare mob of Ortega y Gasset. Half the audience avoids the crush, but the remainder presses forward packing the aisles and the front rows, and everyone is up and boogieing. To boogie, you just stand and move to the music, relating to your brothers and sisters no matter how stoned-out you are because your brothers and sisters are sweating and boogieing on all sides. It isn't dancing, and not just because there isn't room at a concert--even in seatless halls the floor is always tight up front. Folks do dance with each other in back, but for most of the exhilaration of the boogie increases exponentially with the proximity of the musicians. If Jerry beams his cosmic grin down at someone, he/she will not shriek like a 12-year-old chickie at the TAMI Show, but just boogie harder.

The dismay of the mass culture theorists and their politely-raised offspring is understandable--too many people in too little space, all competing to get to the fore of the hero-worshipping swarm, ignoring the hard-earned wisdom of the fire laws and damaging property that they and their sibling consumers will pay for in the end. Many of the boogiers are usurpers who buy cheap seats and confidently move up, or just sneak in to begin with. Despite the love-and-community rhetoric and sacramental joint-passing, the boogiers do discriminate against the weak and the short and the timid--a few always pass out, many more get sick, and eventually someone will die--and a boogieing biker is almost as likely to knock your head off at a Dead concert as anywhere else. Yet when we finally reached our seats we had no trouble claiming them, and the wallet and cigarettes that Dominique had unknowingly dropped at the other end of the row were passed down a minute later. A girl standing in front of us started to bum out but revived when an orange miraculously materialized. Regulars greeted other regulars, remembered from previous boogies, and compared this event with a downer in Boston or a fabulous night in Arizona.

A lot of people avoid live rock because they can't stand the crowds. In a medium-sized hall where the music can be felt in back, that smacks of the old aristocratic bullshit to me. Rock and roll developed as it did because it was a mass art, and if it can bring us together in a celebration, that's good. Club intimacy and living-room privacy are fine, but in the end I am pro-boogie. The Dead, who played four nights at the Felt Forum instead of filling the Garden and who arranged a special live broadcast on WNEW-FM to accommodate those who couldn't make it, demonstrate that despite the contradictions live performances are still a viable form. Ideally, the band activates the pleasure principle while a hip, property-oriented tough like Bill Graham, who produced the series, protects the reality principle. Someone has to pay, I guess, but anyone clever enough to get past Graham deserve to boogie as much as this reporter. A lot of hassle might be avoided if reserved seats were eliminated--the fanatics should be in front, first-come-first-serve. The risks and contradictions are real, but the principle seems to be that a good time involves a few dues. That doesn't sound like such a bad principle to me.

THE BETWEEN-SET MUSIC was Carole King and the late Byrds and Dylan's Greatest Volume II, all favorites of Howard Stein, I'm sure, but about as appropriate at an Alice Cooper concert as Doris Day at an Alan Freed teenorama. The opening acts, electric gut Wet Willie and jive king Dr. John, were more to the point, for Alice is the drag king of electric jive. Alice-the-person was born in Phoenix and got it together in Detroit, passing through Frank Zappa's freak show sometime in between, and aside from the assumed name and heavy application of eye makeup is about as feminine as Mark Farner--slinky costumes, after all, have been a predilection of rock misogynists since the early days of English fop. Alice-the-group makes music that at its best is pure rock and roll, and I mean pure--not blues or rhythm-and-blues and barley blues-based, with no surfer overlay of Four Freshmen harmonies and not a hint of folkie sentiment. A similar will to power energizes groups like Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk and Black Sabbath, but where the heavies depend on overwhelming displays of amplifier expertise, Alice Cooper's musical approach is closer to that of two one-shot groups of the mid-60s, the Count Five ("Psychotic Reaction") and the Music Machine ("Talk Talk"). Neither showed the slightest understanding of the (blues) emotion that was part of early rock and roll--they just plastered your brains to the ceiling with sound. That's Alice's approach, and to an extent it's fine with me. Alice's good songs are structured like singles, with the lyrics advanced within the old male-revel tradition and clearly audible and the music tightly constructed around one of two hook riffs. Where your average heavy group goes in for boring solos, however, Alice substitutes theatrics, which unfortunately are also boring. He goosesteps, he plays with a boa constrictor, he chops up a doll, he is hanged by a black-hooded executioner, he throws Alice-Cooper-is-hanged calendars to the audience. The audience, which was medium young, seemed to get off on this stuff, although not ecstatically--my 14-year-old companion described it as "interesting"--even though the hanging was patently bogus without any saving suggestion of parody and Alice never got a calendar past the first three rows. I suspect I might have been disturbed if it had been better done, since it seemed to suggest the death-tripping and authoritarianism that I'm afraid will be the first youth fads of the '70s. What I felt instead was a curious alienation, even though the music was intelligent and original rock and roll. Perhaps its intrinsic coldness encourages alienation, but I think the real reason I felt that way is that I didn't understand what was happening there, and I wonder what Howard Stein's choice of between-set music indicates about his understanding. One reason Bill Graham closed the Fillmore was that he no longer understood why people like the music they liked, although of course Graham didn't put it so politely. The Academy of Music is a good hall, and there has to be a heavy teenorama somewhere, but I'd feel a little more comfortable, somehow, if I thought someone I trusted really knew what was going down.

EXCEPT FOR ROCK-CRITIC fan Dave Newberger, who detected a slip in the table of contents, nobody wrote to tell me why Consumer Guide (20) was unlike all other Consumer Guides. A few wrote to insult me or compliment me, but no one, not even industry people, noticed that every record in that CG was distributed by one of two corporations, CBS and Kinney, which between them control about half the record market. That frightens me. I don't pretend to understand conglomerate economics very well, and as of now Atlantic/Atco/Cotillion and Elektra and Warner/Reprise and Columbia/Epic do preserve some autonomy and issue creative product--though none of these companies has any better ear for new talent than the competition--but vague echoes of Teddy Roosevelt and the trust busters (some shuck, I'm sure) keep troubling me. Economists with enlightening facts or theories are invited to advise.

BOB DYLAN may just be into his music, man, but in the past month he's continued to show a star's canniness. Just after the dubious "Greatest Hits Volume II" package, which is certain to be bought even by those who own all the old stuff because it contains six new cuts, he released the heartening "George Jackson." Rolling Stone commented that "the song immediately divided Dylan speculators into two camps: those who see it as the poet's return to social relevance and those who feel that it's a cheap way for Dylan to get a lot of people off his back." This is ugly nonsense, of course, because the song is neither. Dylan seems finally to have come to terms with his own development. His inclusion of "Hard Rain" and "My Back Pages" in the new compendium indicates that the protest Dylan and the anti-protest Dylan are both part of the persona now. "George Jackson" is not a return to protest (Dylan has never lacked social relevance--that's what being a star means and if the next lp doesn't include a lot of new political song, that won't prove it was just a way of getting rid of poor A. J.) More important is that Dylan responded with real human sympathy to a hideous assassination that Rolling Stone chose to fudge over with a notably pusillanimous account by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle. The song is getting airplay (62 per cent in the December 11 Cash Box, and 57 with a bullet on the singles chart), most often with the "shit" taken out somehow. Reportedly, CBS president Frank Stanton personally ordered WCBS-FM to get rid of the "shit" or take it off, and WCBS-FM elected to take it off. Ahh, shit.

Village Voice, Dec. 16, 1971