Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ghost Dance

book cover

Wednesday there was e-mail from Jessica Hopper of Hyper PR in Chicago, apologizing for having to tell us where her bands were headed now that CMJ had been postponed. "Nothing like profound tragedy to make our myopic punk rock world and scene squabbles seem truly meaningless," she began, struggling like everyone else for language that would grab and hold. "We're planning to donate the cost of our unused seats out to CMJ to the Red Cross and various rescue funds. It's hard to know what to do, a feeling I'm sure everyone can identify with." Perhaps it was because I'd learned from Charles Cross's Heavier Than Heaven that Hopper was staying in Kurt Cobain's house the morning Cobain shot himself (undetected, in a separate building) that I found her use of the exhausted, inescapable "tragedy" so much more striking than that of, say, Justin Timberlake, who seemed every bit as honorable and distraught. I mean, this woman had some expertise--Cobain's death was a profound tragedy too. But the difference in scale is qualitative. Rock and roll overcame tragedy in Cobain's music as surely as tragedy overcame rock and roll in his life. This time, it's tragedy in a clean sweep.

Talk blues till you're blue in the face, cite all the music we love that has a darkness to it, and rock and roll still remains a uniquely American reproach and alternative to what a European existentialist long ago dubbed the tragic sense of life. Invented by and for teenagers in a time of runaway plenty, it's not blues by a longshot, and from Chuck Berry to the Beatles to the Ramones to Madonna to OutKast a fair share of its masters have made extinguishing darkness their lifework. They come in knowing that love hurts and everybody dies, but they have the inner confidence to remember there's more to life, and to prove it. The music's confidence--in addition to its deeply democratic form, its African slant on melody and rhythm, and its Cadillacs with cherries on top--was why rock and roll took over a Europe that was only a decade past World War II. We were too, of course. But our mainland hadn't been attacked by a hostile power since 1814. War had never endangered our lives, ravaged our world, happened in front of our eyes. Now, as we count our dead, adjust our expectations, replay those crumbling towers in our minds, and prepare for horrors to come, it has. Tragic-sense-of-lifers like to grant the Bomb a crucial role in rock and roll consciousness. I've always suspected that was liberal rhetoric, that at most '50s nuclear fantasies added edge and flavor. Now I'm sure of it. Our inner confidence, if it's there at all anymore, will never sound the same. If I live long enough, I'll finally have something to get nostalgic about.

Of course, what made the confidence doubly winning was its commonness--its commitment to music/language at its most vernacular. That's why the worst flatline of our president's Oval Office chat the night of the attack came when he avoided the King James version of the 23rd Psalm for one of the Business Writing 1 translations that palliate well-heeled fundamentalism all over suburbia. "The folks who did this" was mind-boggling enough. But how could even George W. have imagined that "You are with me" would get anyone's heart beating like "Thou art with me"? Just when we needed a jolt of moral certitude, the glad-handing frat boy grayed out like the policy wonk we wish he was. We vernacular fans can see the connection between "the folks who did this" and the hard-wired rootsiness that afflicts a gamut of fools from Pete Seeger to Lee Greenwood, just as we can connect "You are with me" to L.A./Stockholm megapop. And I hope we sense that in this time of unprecedented trouble the long-impacted grandeur of "Thou art with me" is the kind of vernacular we need. As a Bible-believing Christian turned convinced atheist, I never miss a chance to shout that rock and roll is secular music. But that hardly means it doesn't have religious sources or express religious feelings. I know, religious feelings got us into this hell. And I can now guarantee that there are atheists in the valley of the shadow of death. I doubt there was anyone without religious feelings last week. Death is every atheist's window on the eternal.

I hadn't yet pinned this down Tuesday when I finished retrieving my daughter from school in Queens. But I already knew I wanted to begin my next show on the Voice's fledgling Web radio station with the atheist's hymn: from "God is a concept by which we measure our pain" to "I don't believe in . . . ," John Lennon's "God" summed up a mood, and for Carola and me that was reality. Soon I figured out where I'd end, too: with Sufi shaikh and Istanbul medical professor Orüj Güvenç chanting "Bismillah ah-Rahman," one of the names of God. But though devising a playlist was the only way I could think of to pretend I had a use in the world without confronting my own inanity, finding the right songs was a lot harder than it was during the attack's geopolitical cause and CNN forerunner, the Gulf War. "What's Going On" seemed way corny, and "From a Distance," unfortunately, was no longer an apposite metaphor. This was a time for some of the rage music that I love as art and rarely need in life. Punk for sure, "Hate and War," but before I even got there I was on the only metal band I care for deep down, Motorhead.

"Bomber" is a classic piece of hard rock power-mongering, identifying with the thing it loves and hates: "Scream a thousand miles/Feel the black death rising moan/Firestorm coming closer/Napalm to the bone/Because you know we do it right/A mission every night/It's a bomber/It's a bomber/It's a bomber." But it doesn't vaunt itself the way metal usually does--it's too fast, too crude, too prole. And though the poorly read might get the impression Lemmy thinks napalm is cool because he too attacks every night, he doesn't--the only reason Motorhead fans don't know he's written as many antiwar songs as Bruce Cockburn is that they've never heard of Bruce Cockburn. I prefer Lemmy's because he understands better than Cockburn--whose greatest moment, to his undying credit, expands on the theme "If I Had a Rocket Launcher"--the attractions and uses of violence. The same goes for a lot of loud rock and roll, where what's praised as sexuality is often sublimated aggression. But that didn't make my song hunt any easier, and casual listening, to escape or find solace or get some fucking work done, was a trial--most records I could hardly bear to play. Everything lacked the proper focus and gravity. Everything seemed too sure of itself.

As the trauma recedes, my ears are coming out of their shell a little. So I suspect it will take more than one unspeakable catastrophe to destroy the aesthetic I've made my calling, and wish I had faith there won't be another. But for all the solace I've derived from other people's nominations--Joy Division, Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, and especially the Ramones' class-proud Too Tough To Die, a favorite of missing firefighter Johnny Heff, known to his fans as punk rocker Johnny Bully--the record I've played like a teenager is one I ransacked for my show that first night. I wanted a victory song, which in rock and roll too often means a plodding march steeped in the European triumphalism metal takes from the symphonic tradition, and I also wanted a reconciliation song, a rebirth song. These cravings weren't rational; maybe I should have known better. But I felt compelled to locate my copy of Alpha Blondy's formerly nutty "Yitzhak Rabin." And in some crevice of my memory, prised open perhaps by the artiste's Rimbaud-worshippin' penchant for desert mysticism and other Islamic BS, I zeroed in on Patti Smith. And that's how I got to Easter.

Amazon bestseller Nostradamus has nothing on Easter. The booklet says "Till Victory" is about "the destruction of the machine gun by the electric guitar," and I hope that's a prophecy. Meanwhile, an anthemic melody, one that like all great Kaye-Kral-Daugherty reclaims European vainglory as Americanese vernacular, channeled my rage into "Take arms, take aim, be without shame" and "God do not seize me please, till victory." After the Springsteen-styled hit that seems so beside the point now, "Ghost Dance," a Plains Indian chant meant to resurrect anyone's forefathers, segues to the minute-and-a-half spoken-word "Babelogue," where I was amazed to hear Smith ranting "In heart I am Moslem; in heart I am-an-am-an American" before launching the fierce and no longer suspect "Rock N Roll Nigger." And only later in the week did I register "25th Floor," an unhinged rocker about fucking in a men's room high above Detroit: "Oh kill me baby/Like a kamikaze/Heading for a spill/Oh but it's all spilt milk to me." It spills into another rant, about shit and gold and alloys and "all must not be art," and also "the transformation of waste," repeated like a mantra. Great song. It's aggression changed back into sexuality, it's "some art we must disintegrate," it's the music I'll take away from the death of the World Trade Center and God knows what else. It's a transformation of waste. It's a dream of life. It's a small thing that will have to do.

Village Voice, Sept. 25, 2001