Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Xgau Sez

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

April 17, 2024

And It Don't Stop.

Pick hits: Margret Drabble and Marshall Berman. Must to avoid: Smashing Pumpkins at Lollapalooza '94. Plus: Radio time (or lack thereof), Dave Marsh (disco mix), and old & new instant excitements.

[Q] If you are not a music critic, you must be a good literary critic. You ranked The Mars Trilogy sixth, between Mumbo Jumbo and A House for Mr. Biswas, on your list-in-perpetual-progress of favorite 20th-century novels. Do we get the full ranking? -- Debbie Chan, Shenzhen, China

[A] I'd rather not for several reasons, though I suppose might change my mind. But there's a brief novel by Margaret Drabble, a UK author I generally respect more than I admire, that I read at Carola's urging when we first got together. It's called The Millstone and I recommend it to everyone I know even though I understand childbirth is a less universal theme than some might imagine. I wrote about it in Going Into the City. It's both soulful and exquisite.

[Q] Which book by Marx is a must-read, The Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital, or the 1844 Economic Manuscripts? -- Terry Tan, Hong Kong

[A] I'm not the guy to ask, since The Communist Manifesto is the only one I've read. Instead I strongly recommend an essay collection by my dear friend the late great Marshall Berman: Adventures in Marxism. I'm probably not supposed to say this given what I haven't read, but Berman's prose is a lot easier on the cerebellum than Marx's. So I should add that circa 1967 I read and admired Marx's 18th Brumaire. It was regarded as something of a potboiler albeit a revolutionary one as I recall, but for just that reason goes down easier.

[Q] Hi, Robert. Maybe you've been asked the following questions before. However, here goes. Have you ever tuned into Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour? If so, what is your assessment of Dylan's tastes in music, assuming he chose those tunes not just because they fit the given theme, but also for their musical value. Thanks! -- Keiro Kitagami, Kyoto, Japan

[A] Essentially, I never listen to the radio, although I did when I owned a car a couple of decades ago, and then I stuck stuck to pop stations, which had and have more to teach me about what's going on. I did enjoy Dylan's book The Philosophy of Modern Song, though.

[Q] Dave Marsh once said "I don't know that [punk] was any more important than disco" and believes hip-hop is more significant than punk in musical history. Do you agree with this? -- Lance Rocke, California

[A] Given how crucial Africa has been to post-2000 pop and arguably a lot of what's earlier than that I certainly don't think these are outlandish ideas. But I would note that Marsh has been so much a lifelong anti-bohemian that his thoughts in that arena are always suspect.

[Q] Bob, I've enjoyed your work for many years. You've written about your process of putting new music on in the background to see if it grabs you. My question: can you recall some albums that have blown you away on the first listen--work that inspired something like immediate astonishment, and that you immediately knew was A or A+ stuff? Perhaps a related question (or perhaps not): do you remember your reaction the very first time you heard the Clash or Ramones? The very first spin of Sgt. Pepper's? Thank you! -- Kent, Brooklyn

[A] I don't think "blown me away" is a very useful way of putting it. Rather I'd say something like "excited me" or "commanded my full immediate attention." In 2023 there were a number of such, several of which I recognized as terrific right off but also could soon discern were clearly limited in one way or another: Gina Birch would be a perfect example--not for everyone at 69 and understandably so. Olivia Rodrigo's Guts might be an exception--terrific from first spin but also clearly calling out for deeper analysis and further elucidation. I couldn't get enough of the 2023 Lewis Capaldi for the first day or two, although that's an album few admire as much as I do, and the same probably goes for Dolly Parton's Rockstar, which I crowed about to Carola track by track first play but soon recognized wasn't for everyone on a first-to-last basis, and rightly so at that. Having already seen the Ramones a bunch of times when their debut surfaced I played it immediately and never seem to get tired of it. Then there were my first two rock album buys, The Beatles' Second Album and The Rolling Stones Now! Both are still play-it-again faves around here. As for Sgt. Pepper, I sat around with a bunch of journalists and listened to it for hours before its official release, still play it occasionally. and now resent anyone who puts it down "Within You Without You" notwithstanding.

[Q] As someone who's thoroughly read and philosophized upon your words, I figured I'd ask about your review of Smashing Pumpkins' 1991 LP Gish. I know that a * review is by no means negative, but, aside from highlighting an occasionally-aired promo single, your review was relatively dismissive. I know of your thoughts on metal ("What am I supposed to say about the latest in meaning-mongering for the fantasy fiction set?"), but the lyricism and guitar acrobatics on this album cannot be denied. Hell, it might be kind of arty, but not that arty. Not enough that it loses its relatability. This mild dismissiveness of usually beloved records would include your reviews of Elliot Smith's Either/Or, Bjork's Homogenic, and, in a more extreme case, Radiohead's Kid A and Amnesiac. I'm not asking you to love ATUM, Zeitgeist, CYR, or Machina/The Machines of God. I don't like half to 99% of the music on those records. Just please reconsider. Even the same response with reasons would be enough. -- Morgan C, New Hampshire

[A] I am genuinely flattered that you believe I'm so diligent and open-minded I can be expected to replay an album by an artist not one of whose releases I came close to enjoying as opposed to respecting. But I'm not. In fact the only one of the six artists you name I admire more than that is Bjork, and even in her case the positivity doesn't extend so far that I'm about to figure out how to insert the appropriate umlaut into her name. Many serious aesthetes among rock fans admire these artists you name. I don't, because none of their aesthetics make enough room for pop fun or African-derived grooves, both of which are gold as far as I'm concerned. With Smashing Pumpkins my disillusion arrived early in their career, at a doomed 1994 rock festival in Rhode Island whose performance I described thusly:

It was after 8, so we spread our stash of Armenian food on a desolate press table slightly aft of the stage, but although we hoped to avoid Nick Cave, all too soon rampant self-expression was drowning out dinner conversation. We took our time returning, then lounged far back as the decent conventional rock and unriveting arena solos waxed and mostly waned. Occasionally the star would announce that he was about to knock our socks off, but he never came close, and around 9:20 he started complaining in a strangely un-Australian accent. He dissed Rhode Island, he dissed the site, he told us we should "tear up the empty lot" when the show was over, he congratulated us sarcastically for attending: "There may be a bomb underneath you but you are rocking--at least you can tell your children that you came and you rocked." He pouted: "I'm sorry we suck." He rationalized: "We apologize for trapping ourselves in a vortex we can't get out of." Finally, just before 10, he advised us to drive safely and limped off to widely scattered cheers. The Quonset edition of Lollapalooza was over.

I was pissed off and deeply confused. For half an hour I'd been jeering this bad expressionist band in the expectation that soon I'd hear a good one, Smashing Pumpkins. God, I thought, that must have been some traffic jam. But when Carola asked who the female musician was, I figured it out. Nick Cave had preceded Quest--that was Smashing Pumpkins. How embarrassing for me--but how much more embarrassing for Billy Corgan. Carola, who isn't normally given to hyperbole, called it the worst performance she'd ever witnessed in her life. I told her she'd never seen Richie Havens.

I am proud to note that after this passage was published I was approached in a restaurant by a bizzer I knew who worked for Smashing Pumpkins. He thought it was a riot.