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.

June 26, 2024

And It Don't Stop.

Keeping (or losing) a taste for the new stuff, the (non) Battle at Artists Space, the album artistry of Otis Redding, forerunners vs. forefathers, existential anxiety, and the appalling Gaza war.

[Q] Hi, Bob. Hope you and Carola are doing well. I need your advice. It's becoming more difficult to get into (or even keep up with) pop music these days. For whatever reason, things just aren't clicking as fast and intense for me as they used to. There are exceptions, obviously. Olivia Rodrigo scratches the itch every time. By and large however, I feel mentally fatigued and ambivalent about a lot of new tunes I hear regardless of genre. These feelings started about a year ago, but have only gotten stronger. At 35, I know I've aged out of a large chunk of the pop demographic. But I don't want to lose touch. Music enriches my life too much for me to just give up on it and retire to the tunes of yesterday. Nostalgia is a no-go for me. How do I get out of this rut? -- Jon LaFollette, Speedway, Indiana

[A] Generalizing about The State Of Pop Music is a fool's game I have no desire to play, but it's definitely the case that (a) people do sometimes just lose their taste for the new stuff and (b) that it evolves for a multiplicity of economic, sociopolitical, and technological reasons. What I certainly am willing to say is that if I'm a crucial source of guidance for you and some of my recent enthusiasms aren't ringing your chimes for one reason or another, maybe I've just outlived my usefulness for you. Owning thousands of albums and spending as much time with my music-loving wife as I do, I can certainly say that playing Arto Lindsay's Mundo Civilizado certainly made breakfast feel like a feast yesterday morning and that I'll probably be digging out a less certain pick soon. Then there's one more thing: jazz. I'd bet plenty that there are lots of jazz artists you barely know at all. Explore that avenue for a while. Spotify makes it so easy, but buying a few likely-sounding CDs would be even better.

[Q] Your name popped up a few times in the last couple of days (mid-June, 2024) in the various obits for late no-wave skronker James Chance, most if not all due to the altercation between the two of you back in the late '70s--referred to variously as fisticuffs, a violent assault, overblown, among other descriptors. I was wondering if seeing your name alongside his brought up any memories or thoughts of the time, his impact or lack thereof, etc. He's before my time though I'm at least cursorily familiar with his work--I went back and read your reviews of his output, which all seem to be from after said incident. Was it difficult to be objective after such an interaction? It's certainly a bit more visceral than say, Lou Reed calling you a toefucker onstage. -- Adam, Arlington, Massachusetts

[A] I didn't know Chance or whatever we are to call him had died until I received your query, but for sure much worse people have lived to 71, like for instance Donald Trump. When I was first aware of Chance, decades ago now, I thought he was a jerk as a person but a not altogether uninteresting musician, as in this review: "Bohemias are always beset by ambitious neurotics who hawk their obnoxious afflictions as if they're the future of the species, which is why in theory James White's music is better without the words: you get the jagged rhythms and tonic off-harmonies without being distracted by his 'ideas.' But in fact the music is so (deliberately) stunted it needs a voice for sonic muscle, and James's lyrics do have a certain petty honesty and jerk-off humor. 'I Don't Want to Be Happy' should separate the believers from the spectators quite nicely. B+" (Yes, Chance did sometimes call himself "White.") But I am sorry I have to go into the Artists Space incident yet again, which I once did when Thurston Moore was writing a book he never sent me when it was published. For sure no blood was involved no matter what it says in Bernard Gendron's From Montmartre to the Mudd Club. Anyway, it happened at a nonprofit-I-think downtown spot called Artists Space where my then-young friend Perry Brandston was doing the sound, with his stepfather Bob Stanley and mother Marylin Herzka, both very close friends and both now deceased, in attendance. One "cool" thing Chance liked to do was stride or clamber out into the audience and hit people--not hard, he was a shrimp, just annoying taps. But when he chose Marylin as one of his targets, Bob Stanley, an excellent painter with zero tolerance for "avant-garde" BS, waded onto the floor and to the rescue until, as I recall it, whatever passed for security goons at Artists Space pulled him off. Whereupon I entered the fray, which is to say I sat on Chance until I in turn was either pulled off or persuaded to desist. So to repeat: despite what Gendron reports third-hand, no blood was shed.

[Q] You've written that no one made better soul albums in the '60s than Otis Redding but because your consumer guide started in 1970, none of his albums are graded on your website. He released six studio albums in his lifetime and four more posthumously. I know you likely don't have grades readily available for all of them but can you rank his 10 studio albums in approximate order from best to worst? They are Pain in My Heart (1964), Sings Soul Ballads (1965), Otis Blue (1965), The Soul Album (1966), Dictionary of Soul (1966), King and Queen (1967), Dock of the Bay (1968), Immortal (1968), Love Man (1969), Tell the Truth (1970). Thank you -- Eric Salbas, Syracuse

[A] Sorry, but you just asked me to do three-four days of work--part of my secret as a critic is that I don't jump to conclusions. But I can tell you that The Immortal Otis Redding has been an all-time favorite of mine for more than half a century and I still remember returning to King and Queen with great pleasure a few years ago. And should you choose to make the effort, which if you're so interested you probably should, check out my site, where several other Otis albums are graded and others listed in a complimentary way.

[Q] Hi Robert, in your review of Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air you said: "A politics of enforced backwardness in the midst of forms and symbols of enforced modernization produced the surreal, self-conscious antigentility of the raznochintsy--sons of clerks and tailors, inventors of nihilism, forerunners of Picasso, Neil Young, and the Latin American novel." I find this idea interesting. Do you think raznochintsy gave birth to the Latin American novel? -- Victor Yeoh, Singapore

[A] I think you're misinterpreting the word "forerunner." It doesn't mean "forefathers"; it doesn't assume a bloodline physical or metaphorical. Seems to me what Berman's saying is that even in alien Russia, which he means to situate at least in part in what is called "the West," thoughtful people were struggling to adjust to the modernity his book means to map.

[Q] Have you ever been clinically depressed? It's obvious that you haven't, but with all the dissing it's kind of annoying. People don't kill themselves expecting others to revere them lol. I'm glad you're all cheerful and love fucking and rocking and living, but there's stuff under the Sun you're blessed you don't know about. Love the work btw, great stuff. Haven't listened to anything from the past 25+ years, but your guides have been invaluable for the good old stuff nonetheless. Nice to see it's still good to ya, boomer!! -- Johnny Silverhand, Earth

[A] "Clinically depressed" is a diagnosis I've most likely evaded, but that doesn't mean I've never been blue for a substantial period, in what seems to categorized as situational depression. I write about it in detail in the college chapter of Going Into the City. Two factors pertained: one, my loss of the born-again Christian faith that promised me eternal life, and two, my growing hunch that the only girlfriend I'd ever had (and also, although I didn't know it at the time really, quite a catch--many of my male high school classmates liked her too, yet somehow the Christian nerd and youngest member of his class won her heart) wasn't quite the perfect creature I'd initially believed her to be. So for two years at all-male Dartmouth I walked around with a knot of romantic disillusion and existential anxiety cramping my gut. I literally could not take a deep breath. Only then one day early in my junior year I took a breath and it went all the way down. A big relief. I continued to suffer from both existential uncertainty and romantic disillusion. But I was over the worst of it. I finally broke up with my gf a few months after I graduated, and I was right. But I have no doubt she deserved better than I found myself able to give her.

[Q] On October 18, you tweeted a defense of Israel citing a well written piece which postulated that the hospital bombing committed one week after 10/7 was actually not committed by Israel. You stated that prior to this evidence, you were "profoundly disturbed" that such a thing could happen. So now here we are, over half a year later, after tens of thousands of deaths and countless hospital bombings which have all undeniably been committed by Israel--and you haven't said a single word? It's one thing for you to have stayed quiet on the issue completely, but you only speak up when Israel can be protected? Bob, what is wrong with you? How are you not profoundly disturbed as the death toll of innocent civilians reaches nearly 40,000 with no clear end in sight? The last thing I ever expected from my decades of following your works was for you to be so spineless. I refuse to believe you only actively stand for something when the narrative suits your desires. -- Brandon Sparks, America

[A] Anyone but a genuine expert who writes about the appalling Gaza war risks being incomplete and probably wrong. I cited that hospital bombing story because that early there seemed some reason for hope that the war would resolve itself with a modicum of sanity. It wasn't yet clear just how appalling Netanyahu would prove to be--or, I will add with my hands shaking, Hamas either. The "lots" I know is too little and in public at least I intend to say as little as possible. I've long believed in a two-state solution and this war is easily the cruelest and most gruesome international conflict of my adulthood. But it hasn't yet turned me into a full-bore anti-Zionist, because as an American of German extraction with many dozens of Jewish friends, I've spent too much of my life taking anti-Semitism seriously to put it on any sort of back burner now.