These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.
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September 27, 2023
Unhappy news, the one-man campaign to render "Mr. Lee" a recognized classic, working with the State Department, McCartney (not Paulie), genius and generations, whining from down under.
[Q] Hi. Unhappy news. Last night I was digging around a Seward Park alumni chat page and found this: "Mr. Steve Anderson -- Teacher at Seward, a Founder of LoMA. We. are sorry to have learned of the recent passing of Steve Anderson, who taught at Seward Park High School from 1985 until the school's closing in 2006. He then became one of the founders of LoMA on the Seward Park campus after Seward closed." Just a few other details there. When I searched for more, I found your pieces mentioning him and his book. I'm stunned and deeply saddened. Steve was a good friend when I taught at SPHS, adored by colleagues and students alike. He was quietly brilliant, with a delicious dry wit. I left teaching in 1992, but last ran into him on the train a few years before the pandemic. Now this. So much I would love to say to him and about him. He kept me a little saner back then. The lack of info online is upsetting. Oh, Steve. I hope your departure was easy. -- CM Kessler, Brooklyn
[A] When I reconnected with Steve in July he told me that he'd had a heart attack a few months before. Heart incidents are fairly common after 65 and Steve seemed pretty together if not quite hale and hearty when I walked down to St. Marks Place to pick up the clips we wanted to reprint, so I didn't give this news much thought. But then came a phone call from a friend of Steve's telling me he'd died of a heart attack--more or less instantly was the impression I got. I was shocked of course and started bellowing "oh no" into the phone, and soon I was worrying among other things that the renewed attention might have triggered the coronary. Which I suppose it might have, although I'm told by those close to him that he was delighted to be remembered. It turns out Steve had completed another novel. It's set in the Kansas of his boyhood and titled Heat, Then Rain. His wife asked if I would proofread it and I did. Liked it a lot. Will be sure to alert readers when it sees print.
[Q] I recently watched the 1977 film Between the Lines and saw your name in the credits. I carefully revisited the party sequence and could not spot you. Are you in the movie? What was your contribution to this enjoyable picture? -- Erik Nelson, Houston
[A] I was the musical advisor on that Joan Micklin Silver flick, for which I received a modest honorarium, although my recollections of exactly what I contributed are pretty dim 50 years later. Not much I don't think. I was on vacation during part of the shoot, no phone in our state park cabin, and recall dialing from a roadside pay phone to convey a few suggestions. And something tells me that I tried to get them to include the Bobbettes' "Mr. Lee," although not whether I succeeded. My one-man campaign to render "Mr. Lee" a recognized classic has never gotten very far, so I assume I failed.
[Q] I just stumbled onto this little anecdote about the '70s band Fatback on your website: "I once blindfolded-tested Fatback along with a dozen other members of the State Department's Committee on Jazz, Folk and Popular Music. Every one of us got the funk. When I returned home, however, I could never find that groove again." Is this a joke I missed, or did you actually get together with a government committee and listen to funk? What's the story here? -- Ronan Connelly, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
[A] No joke--for maybe two years in the mid-'70s I did indeed work with a State Department committee charged with determining which nonclassical musical artists merited government support for their overseas tours. Details have faded, including who else was on the committee, whether we got an honorarium (small one I think--$200?), how frequently we convened (twice a year?), how travel was arranged, etc. But for sure I found the experience interesting. I'm pretty sure I was the only rock guy. My two memories are dim but real. One is that Pete Seeger's half-brother Mike, who I liked tremendously, got upset when I said something positive or maybe just matter-of-fact about folk music's debts to the CPUSA. The other is a battle royal over the Grateful Dead, accounted grooveless slobs by most of my jazz- and folk-oriented confreres (no women as I recall). I believe I ended up winning that one. Didn't remember the Fatback story, but am proud I had something to do with it.
[Q] Given how much you love the Beatles, I've always been a bit mystified by your harsh assessment of Paul McCartney's solo work. It's not even so much that you don't like his records, he seems to annoy you on every level. Given that many of his precious, whimsical qualities were on display in his late-'60s Beatles output, I'm wondering how do you square your love for a band with your dislike for its co-leader. As much as I adore John Lennon, I think Macca was the greater creative force in the band--though only by a little, and of course this is a debatable position. So I'm curious: What are your favorite Paulie songs with the Beatles and what do you regard as his chief contribution to the band? Also, are you sticking with your pans of Band on the Run and Ram? Both are masterpieces and sound better every year, IMO. -- James Bradley, Chatham, New York
[A] "Annoy you on every level" is such a silly overstatement I find it difficult to address seriously. First and most obvious, Paul was a mere quarter of the Beatles, not a half--remember those George and Ringo guys, I forget their last names it's been so long, but not that both were far more vivid figures than anyone in Wings but Paul himself--doesn't pack as big an impact as you're suggesting, although his melodicism was obviously crucial to what the other three Beatles put out there. Indeed, his whimsy in the Beatles context can be positively refreshing on occasion, and to choose the most obvious example, if he ever did anything as feral as "Long Tall Sally" in Wings, for some reason nobody noticed. I regret some of the language I used in my McCartney reviews, although it was more justifiable at the time--calling him "Paulie" especially, and "a convinced fool" no longer flies though it made some sense rhetorically in the moment. In addition, I came to admire Linda with the years and had nothing but respect for their marital commitment. Moreover, McCartney has become a much solider public figure over the years, and much less a public pothead, which I always found regrettable. Reports from his shows suggest that they're very well put together, and not only that--he's apparently taken to charging substantial admission to sound check rehearsals and donating all those proceeds to charity, a great idea for an icon. But am I gonna relisten to all those albums? Nah--life is too short. So my certainty that the songs on the superbly curated 1999 covers album Run Devil Run cut all but a few of his solo compositions could well be a judgment I die with.
[Q] Any interest in reviewing Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real's growing catalog? I love your Willie Nelson reviews and am curious about your thoughts on the music his son Lukas has been creating. Love reading your reviews and check your site frequently for listening suggestions. -- Michael Barnett, Ann Arbor, Michigan
[A] I've tried, and I've tried some more. But not only isn't Lukas a titan like Willie, which nobody would have expected or can deny, I just don't find him a compelling artist even though he certainly seems like an OK guy. Great talent is such a rare thing that for it to appear in successive generations is just about unheard of. Even in close cases like Johnny Cash-Rosanne Cash or Ornette Coleman-Denardo Coleman (never mind Bob Dylan-Jakob Dylan or Nat King Cole-Natalie Cole, please) there's still a discernible gap. Pops Staples-Mavis Staples maybe? Judy Garland-Liza Minnelli? But let it be said that all those examples are closer than Willie-Lukas. Which is not for a moment to suggest that Lukas doesn't have every right to pursue a musical career of his own.
[Q] why do the talentless so often engage in the criticism of others with talent? and why must they so often be assholes while going about this endeavour? -- gdf jxebu, australia
[A] why do people too dull-witted to understand criticism keep wasting what little talent they have whining about it? and why do australians kiss british ass by retaining the useless extra vowel in the word "endeavor" centuries after their pioneering predecessors in america shitcanned it?