These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.
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March 15, 2023
Laughter in review, Afrobeats eartime and Afropop explorations, an audio book recommendation, the artistic gas crisis, and infirmity keeps creeping.
[Q] How do you rate standup comedy? Any favorite CDs/specials? -- Conor, Toronto
[A] I've always liked standup but don't listen to or watch much of it--couldn't even get through the recent George Carlin doc though I dug him back in the '70s. We did enjoy and admire the recent documentary The Real Charlie Chaplin, which does justice to Chaplin's physical genius and conceptual daring while also establishing that superstar egomania long preceded Led Zeppelin. We also devoured Richard Pryor's Live in Concert on Netflix, where we both were struck by how physical as well as verbal-aural he was. I gave Pryor's nine-CD 2000 Rhino box And It's Deep, Too! an A plus. Answering you I pulled out Volume 1 of Fantasy's Lenny Bruce Originals and it sounds great though I don't think I ever reviewed it. And above all there's the Firesign Theater, a late-'60s-rooted made-for-the-recording-studio LA comedy troupe whose brilliant Shoes for Industry best-of is still at Amazon. Greil Marcus reported that he used them--and also Monty Python--as background music when he was writing Lipstick Traces. Perhaps overly trippy in retrospect. But terrific.
[Q] What are your thoughts on the mainstreaming of modern Afrobeats/Afropop? Are popular African artists such as WizKid, Tems, Burna Boy, and Black Sheriff worthy artists? -- Darwin, Woodbridge, Virginia
[A] I've put in a lot of ear time on what I think of as "Afrobeats" and its cousins, Burna Boy especially, with little to show for it. The main exception seems to be in the general vicinity of South African amapiano, which as I think about it now for the umpteenth time is the one recent Afropop genre that's beat-based rather than song-based. Which to bring it one step further is the only new African subgenre if that's even the term that's rhythm-based--whereas, to follow this line of thought, most of the many postcolonial African genres that have given me so much pleasure not to mention column inches over the years are rhythm-first albeit often with deeply pleasurable singers like Rochereau and Sunny Ade attached. That's way too simplistic with a profusion of exceptions--where does it leave the likes of Thomas Mapfumo, Oumou Sangare, the titanic Youssou N'Dour just for starters? But conceptually it's a start. I eagerly await an "Afrobeats" type who's a substantial as opposed to merely facile pop songwriter.
[Q] Your writing continues to compel me to listen to music carefully, my thanks! Any interest in revisiting Graceland (the Paul Simon album, not the Elvis tomb)? -- Adam, Arlington, Massachusetts
[A] I've played it at least twice in the past two-three years and it sounded fine--although not, of course, as musically revelatory as it did in 1986, when my Afropop explorations were still just beginning, although they preceded Graceland by several years--there are four African albums on the 1982 Dean's List, for instance. The Africa section of Is It Still Good to Ya? includes a long essay initially inspired by Graceland, which is on my site although condensed and revised for the book.
[Q] As a since childhood reader due to your triumph over almost every "Reviews" section of Wikipedia, I wonder if you would oppose others reading your longer articles out loud for educational purposes. I appreciate your well-worded takes because they seem so earnest as well as thoughtful, but even though you question the purpose of listening to reviews when you have less of a connection to someone like Fantano, for some of us it is faster than reading, perhaps due to ADD, too much TV, or the internet raising our nation's souls. Or is that all just another excuse to learn less? Either way, I certainly know more than a toddler because of both of youse boys. Not that I could make the recordings myself, I'm sure someone else already started, and I just hope they do your work justice. I appreciated Auriculum, but don't expect more. The books you have already made are phenomenal. I take my time with fiction but I look forward to Carola's book when I'm able. -- Justin Grignon, Guelph, Ontario
[A] Assuming anyone would actually do such a thing, I find it hard to imagine why I'd object while reserving the right to change my mind should said miracle, endeavor, or stab in the dark ensue. While we're both waiting, pick up The Only Ones. Some literary wannabes found the prose Carola invented there daunting, but for rock and rollers it reads like butter, and if you insist there's also an audiobook.
[Q] Bob, I refer to your website quite often when searching out used records to see if they are worth my time. Like you, I am a fan of "countrified music" like what the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield released in the late '60s. Recently, I listened to the Springfield's Last Time Around, and the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo and remembered why I loved them so much. I then proceeded to put on the Southern-Hillman-Furay Band's first album, and wondered where the fallout happened. I will admit to enjoying the Eagles, Chris Hillman's Desert Rose, solo Stephen Stills, and some Poco, but in regards to what they followed, the music and lyrics can sometimes be vapid and overdone. Certainly, I think all these guys were/are very talented and have had more money than I will ever obtain, but their work seems to dip in quality over time. It seems to me that the only guy out of this group who remained relevant and did not need a super group or band to prop them up forever is Neil Young. -- Huey, Memphis
[A] Artists run out of gas, that's all. They have an idea or an angle or just a bunch of stuff to say--musically, verbally, or both. They're making a good living at it, enjoying the road although that seldom lasts, bonding with their bandmates. Conflicts arise, but at the very least they find themselves with a job they like. Only those artistic and interpersonal materials generally get stale even if replacement bandmates are easier to come by than replacement spouses. An impressive exception is Neil Young, who despite his affable demeanor there's little evidence is actually all that nice a guy, his certifiable genius enhanced by endurance alone. In pop/rock/whatever that's truly unusual. In jazz, where hard-earned technical skill counts for more and lasts better, lifers are far more common, and let's pause a moment to recall Wayne Shorter. But in pop, even when commercial success endures, the aesthetic excitement often seems staler and staler even for listeners who engage with the innovations or if you like fads pop records have somehow been generating for over a century.
[Q] Any chance you could live forever, please? -- Stu Hutch, Sydney, Australia
[A] I've found that turning 80 had the effect of putting questions like this one--which Carola found touching and thanks you for--in the forefront of my mind. It definitely sharpens one's interest in mortality, as did, for that matter, Carola's 2017 cancer diagnosis, especially before we learned that while multiple myeloma can be fatal, it seldom kills quickly and doesn't necessarily kill at all. When we began that journey, each of us came to realize separately that he or she wanted to die first. That was clarifying and in a way gratifying. The problem with living let's not say forever so how about till 100 is that infirmity keeps creeping. What's passed off as "aches and pains" always hurts and often cripples, and if you have Alzheimer's in your family, as I do--my mom died of it at 89 and her father had some sort of dementia when he died at 83 in 1971--there's that worry whenever you can't remember who produced the Stones' Dirty Work, which at the moment I can't though I remember he boomed too much for the purists. I could go on, but I have work to do.