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.
February 16, 2022
Old men's poems, some two dozen Dead shows (and not counting), Radiohead and Mingus and classical music, and grading the late-'60s Stones.
[Q] Hey Robert, just wanted to know how you and Carola have been faring. Hoping all is well. Hoping this isn't too familiar a question. Love your work, you filled a void that Roger Ebert left. What was your favourite review of his? I know I just asked a question, but I also wanted to know what your favourite poem is. Mine is William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow." I've always found it charming in its simplicity, but that's just me. Love and peace. Would love to talk about Nick Cave with you someday, when you have the patience. -- Jen Friendship, Brisbane, Australia
[A] Carola is recovering--fairly well, it would appear--from February 11 eye surgery. Neither of us has (yet) contracted Covid. We continue to greatly enjoy each other's company in our forced seclusion, though social occasions, which are very occasional, always feel enlarging. As for Roger Ebert, I respect him enormously from a distance on reputation alone but have not checked out much of his criticism--I read a lot, but mostly in the areas of fiction, politics/history, and of course music. As for my favorite poem, there are two: Yeats's "Vacillation" and Williams's "The Dance." (Clarification: Carola reminds me that Williams wrote two poems called "The Dance." This is the later one, which begins: "When the snow falls the flakes/spin upon the long axis/that concerns them most intimately/two and two to make a dance.") These I write about at some length to close out the college chapter of my Going Into the City memoir, because college is when I really cared about poetry. Pages 122-124, to be precise--good stuff. An excerpt: "Both are very much old men's poems, and both very much grabbed young me. I'll say too swiftly that 'Vacillation' is about death and quite confidently that 'The Dance' is about love, then admit cheerfully that both are also about Time [n.b.: a bugbear of mine]; 'The Dance,' however, is more about death than 'Vacillation' is about love, never Yeats's area of expertise." I still read both Yeats and Williams on occasion, and of course I love "The Red Wheelbarrow"--who doesn't? Also Robert Creeley. Other poets much less, which is not to say never.
[Q] How do you feel about Dead and Company or just the current rise in popularity of the Grateful Dead? You seem to have been an early fan based on your reviews of their first few records. I know they've built a dedicated fanbase over decades but it seems like their presence and influence has risen a lot in musical circles in the last few years imo. -- Brian, Atlanta
[A] If this is true I'm not aware of it. It's my observation is that many aging rock stars continue to play to aging audiences I assume are nostalgic for their youths and happy to shell out the big bucks they now have to revisit or recall those relatively carefree, innocent days. It's also my observation that for most of these artists the conceptual excitement and creative spark have long since dimmed. I have no objection to this fan-artist transaction and not the slightest desire--or, given how absorbing I continue to find current music, need--to partake of such transactions myself. Offhand I can think of only three aging artists who I'd love to see right now. One is Neil Young, whose 2021 album was my number one. Another is Randy Newman, who has never made a bad album and whose 2017 Dark Matter was my favorite of that year. The third is Maria Muldaur, who as it happens was a childhood friend of my wife but who in addition has recorded plenty of top-notch music since she turned 60. But as one of the few critics to love the Dead in a prime that began to fade in the mid-'70s and whose early records are still big favorites in my house, I can say that the last time I saw them was at the Garden circa 1977 and I thought they stunk. So with plenty of other live music to enjoy and some two dozen Dead shows behind me, I stopped going. As the extraordinary 2017 documentary Long Strange Trip establishes, they didn't--their audience kept getting bigger and also, in many respects, stupider, though I found several good late live albums more or less at random. Then I don't remember exactly when there was a solo Bob Weir album I tried and failed to get behind, and now this Dead and Friends thing, which may indicate the rise in popularity you posit but I'd adjudge not worth my time. Once again, everyone should have a good time if that's their idea of one. There's nothing remotely shameful about it. But I'm busy.
[Q] You seem not to have much love for Radiohead. Why's that? -- Will Son, Nigeria
[A] This seems like the perfect chance to remind readers of this monthly feature that robertchristgau.com comes equipped with a search function that makes it easy to look up my Consumer Guide reviews of any artist, all of which include links to longer pieces on the same subject such as, in this instance, "No Hope Radio"--which, I can further point out, also appears in my National Book Critics Circle finalist Is It Still Good to Ya: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017. Moreover, the Google Search function of the site enables you to search for other mentions of that band's distinctive name. I recommend you start with "No Hope Radio" and, if so inclined, proceed from there.
[Q] This isn't a question. I'm not an inquisitive person. I think I know enough of your professional affairs to constitute you as one of my favorite writers. To me, you're wonderful reviewer; a dependable resource of a critic who has a material and brute connection with the music, that when he writes, he writes of notions evident in the music itself. I never felt the need to mutilate my own perceptions to understand a bizarre connection, where you're coming from or what you're coming at. There's a steel-stern separation between the subjective and the objective and humility and warmth that are somehow reinforced by the shortness of these capsules. And then there's the bam of delightfully juxtaposing grades. As I said, this isn't a question. But another recommendation as I proceed in my journey of discovering middle eastern music as a middle easterner whose ears are more adjusted to American. -- Omar Qutteineh, Amman, Jordan
[A] Question or no question, how am I not going to reprint that? Thank you, though I would say that rather than a steel-stern separation there has to be a merger of subjective and objective that doesn't preclude separating the two rhetorically, if that makes any sense, which I'm not positive it does. You should be aware that my overseer Joe Levy burned CDs of the oud music you sent that I've played once or twice with some pleasure and interest albeit no true critical purchase. Thank you.
[Q] The love you have for Monk, Rollins, Davis, Armstrong, Coltrane and Ellington is always a pleasure to read. You have used far less space to write about Mingus, whose best work has absolutely stood the test of time for me. I was wondering if your estimation of his output has evolved since 1977, when you wrote that his "elitist aesthetic theories have always put me off his music," and also which of his albums, if any, are A-level in your book. -- J.R., UK
[A] As it happens, I just read the very strange Mingus memoir Beneath the Underdog and for the umpteenth time pulled a Mingus album--don't recall which one--out of my A shelves, where they take up several inches even though, as you note, I am not a Mingus fan. In the memoir I began to glimpse, in between the sex parts, why this was so. Simple, really, and as I like to say a taste not a judgment, many people I like and love like or love Mingus--Carola might well if I gave her the chance, though she didn't bite this time. In between sex parts, Mingus makes a great deal of both his chops on the bass and the breadth of his musical interests, which definitely run to what I'll just call classical music because I don't want to go back and check specifics. My tastes in jazz are very much small-group theme-and-variation. There are plenty of exceptions, but that's my aural wheelhouse. Mingus is plainly interested in more complex and "classically" inflected arrangements and compositions. Since I'm only 79 and in good health, I may yet develop a taste for such sounds. So far, no. As I always say about others and can therefore also say about myself: I like what I like.
[Q] Awesome you allow questions. Mine is: Can you please rate Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. First records bought: "She's a Rainbow" as a 45 having saved up my 25c weekly allowance as an 8-year-old. Grabbed "Jumping Jack Flash" when that came out months later. Still have both. -- Mike, Newark, New Jersey
[A] I never do this, but A and A plus. That's because your question made me feel as if I hadn't played either in years--Now!, Exile, and Aftermath are my normal Stones picks. My gut reaction was that Let It Bleed was superior and I thought it would be fun to play them back to back at dinner, whereupon I learned that I didn't own Let It Bleed on CD. I've ordered it, but meanwhile I played the BB CD and then Spotified Let It Bleed, which because it came out more or less simultaneous with Altamont I admired but didn't play all that much at the time, though because I wrote a lot about the Stones in the '70s I'd certainly heard it a lot. Carola and I agreed that Beggars Banquet was an A, and then could hardly believe how good Let it Bleed sounded. Just the playing is fantastic; we were so snowed we even gave "Midnight Rambler" a pass. I learned that it was one of the first (and few, she was poor) rock albums Carola had bought when she returned from England in 1969 and that she played it constantly, but that was 50 years ago. Now she's decided that "You Can't Always Get What You Want" should be one of her funeral songs (along with both Dusty Springfield's and Aretha Franklin's "A Brand New Me")--no, as indicated above she's not anything like dying, but at our age you start to think about that stuff. Nicky Hopkins is great on it, so much so that I can forgive them for downsizing Ian Stewart.
January 19, 2022
Notes on Ornette Coleman at Carnegie Hall, hope for Elvis Costello fans, no hope for Silver Surfer fans, and Dave Hickey's Greatest Hits.
[Q] I've been hammering the Ornette Coleman catalog of late, particularly Of Human Feelings, which I've liked since high school but had never just felt so right to me. You wrote about seeing him a couple times and in one piece you mention you had been paying attention to his albums (professionally, I assume) starting in the early '70s. How many times did you see him? Where, when, and what stands out among the times you didn't write about? -- Michaelangelo Matos, St. Paul, Minnesota
[A] I've been wracking my brains about this, but I think the answer is that I never saw him back in the day even though I did own and often play his 1960 Change of the Century, which opens with "Ramblin'," the tune I called his "beloved Diddleybeat blues" in my Billboard report on what proved to be his final live performance. There's no record I can find of his playing the Jazz Gallery or the Five Spot, which were my jazz venues after I turned 18 in 1960. But looking around I did find the extensive notes I took on his Carnegie Hall performance for my 2006 "A Month on the Town," which I'll now copy with the warning that my show notes, preserved in files I call giglogs, are rarely this polished. Ahem:
[Q] You haven't reviewed an Elvis Costello album since 1991 and haven't A-listed one since 1986. Is there any hope that he will ever release an album up to your standards again? -- Adam S. Fenton, Menifee, California
[A] By "review" you seem to mean a full paragraph as opposed to an Honorable Mention sentence/clause. But Honorable Mentions are reviews by me. They represent at least three to five listens, often more while less is very unusual. Sometimes the writing is dashed off--if something succinct comes to me I thank the prose gods and go with it. Usually, however, I put real time into the first draft and go over it many times. In addition, at the bottom of my Costello page you'll find a full-length review of his Roots show and collab written for MSN in 2013. Have played the new one once. Thought it began strong. Will return at my own pace.
[Q] "Nor can I resist reprinting it here, regrettable singular 'they' notwithstanding," are ya a transphobe now Bob? -- Tom, Philadelphia
[A] No, I'm not a transphobe--see my 1997 review of John Heidenry's What Wild Ecstasy, collected in Book Reports--and am happy to employ the singular "they" when circumstances warrant. In Clover's book it was used as a default, which is not my way. Just as I value the serial comma, I value the distinction between singular and plural. It can be so clarifying.
[Q] I'm currently reading Douglas Wolk's All of the Marvels, his new book about making his way through all 27,000 (!) Marvel comics. As you are namechecked in the book (it's in a footnote on page 15). I was wondering--you've written about and mentioned comics now and then over the years, but I don't remember anything specific about Marvel. Since they were a big part of the pop culture landscape from the '60s on, I was wondering if you'd ever tried any. My guess is no, but just curious. -- Stanley Whyte, Montreal
[A] You guessed correctly--even in the '50s, when I was the right age, I wasn't big on comic books and preferred the actually comic ones. Was very interested in head comix later, and played a small role in Harvey Pekar's success that included nominating him for a Macarthur, and wrote a big piece on R. Crumb's version of the book of Genesis that's in Book Reports. My daughter, on the other hand, seldom misses one of the many Marvel movies and I've seen a few with her. I am definitely an admirer of Douglas Wolk, who's clearly done yeoman-as-genius work here, and am flattered by his footnote. We did a National Arts Journalism Program stint together, and share an agent, Sarah Lazin, who gave me a copy of the book when I saw her for the first time in way too long. I certainly intend to at least begin it, because if anyone is going to make critical sense of that world, which is plainly of tremendous cultural importance, he's the guy.
[Q] I thanked Peter Stampfel for hipping me to Dave Hickey who I didn't know about until Peter posted that he'd died. I read Air Guitar and flipped for so much of it--the writing, the thinking. A couple pieces I even then read aloud to my wife--the Perry Mason, Chet Baker, and title essays. Peter said you turned him on to Hickey so I'm bringing my thanks right to that source. -- David Greenberger, Greenwich, New York
[A] Backatcha, David, who those who don't recognize the name should be aware is responsible for an amazing series of albums in which interviews with people living out their endgames in senior residences are read aloud and set to music--very much worth checking out. Your tribute to Hickey gives me the chance to opine yet again that while nothing tops Air Guitar, Hickey's 2017 collection Perfect Wave, which I reviewed in And It Don't Stop early on, is almost as good--indeed, deserves its own legend.
[Q] What's the last sound you hope to hear? -- Andrew Maslar, Baltimore
[A] My wife and daughter telling me they love me, or maybe a variation on the last sound my father heard, which was me murmuring "Thank you. Thank you." Not music, unless something occurs to me as the time grows near, as I suppose it might. Chuck Berry? Monk? Impossible to predict.
December 15, 2021
A Wikipedia shout out, the alt-right assault on election workers and school-board members, desert-island Miles, fondness for ABBA revealed, the serial comma defended, and a brief history of rhyme
[Q] Hi, Bob, thanks for all the great writing and hard work, I have appreciated it for decades. Don't know if a similar question has been asked before, but how do you feel about so much of your work being quoted on Wikipedia? Annoyed that it may one day be an almost semi-shadow site of the Guide? Gratified that so many Wikipedia editors quote and link to your work? Appreciative that new readers may follow the links to this site, and to your other writing? Until a fan made the case for Tom Hull, you were really the only "named" legit critic to regularly show up, especially in the ratings boxes, although there have been arguments about Anthony Fantano (ha) and Piero Scaruffi (haha) over the years. -- RES, Fishers, Indiana
[A] I love Wikipedia. Use it almost every day, have learned to see through its inevitable glitches, and donate as I believe everyone who visits it regularly should. As soon as it became apparent that my Substack thingy was going to be a success that would pay me decently to work hard, I called my webmaster Tom Hull to thank him for creating my site almost single-handed, because I assume at least half of robertchristgau.com's regular visitors discovered me via Wikipedia, which cites me so often because my site is a very searchable, very reliable source of pithy reviews of thousands of artists. Do I find errors there fairly often? Yes. Are all subjects covered with equal skill and dedication? How could they be? As I'm about to say just below, there are lots of scary things about the internet. Wikipedia isn't one of them.
[Q] Hi Robert. I'm 16 and have been reading your reviews for a while now and have begun to take an interest in your political views--which are obviously of some leftist persuasion, like mine. I want to ask you what your views are on the modern online far right, or alt-right, and its tendency to target and recruit teens--like me--who are politically adept--not so like me. In this day and age, is it just a natural--no--unsurprising consequence of social media and its sweeping reach? Or are alt-right groomers becoming smarter? Or the youth dumber? -- Leon, London, UK
[A] I think things are a little different, and maybe better, in the UK, about which I know little, so will stick to the USA. I am alarmed, let's call it, although terrified is in the running even now and things seem all too likely to get worse before they get better, by the effect of let's say alt-right (so as not to resort to fascist quite yet) social media on national and especially local politics in the U.S. Election workers and school-board members, who've historically been earnest if occasionally self-important people of considerable integrity and public-spiritedness, have been under concerted attack, with the aim of denying or greatly complicating the franchise of people who for class or racial reasons are likely to vote Democratic and of expunging "liberal" ideas about race, class, gender, and sexual identity from public school curriculums--and by ideas is often meant something very much like facts, as in the recent controversy over the history of post-Civil War "Reconstruction," the 1876 abandonment of which the right seems to have forgotten greatly accelerated, among other things, the lynching fad that was all the rage as late as the 1920s. Moreover, all manner of disinformation, especially about Covid and the 2020 election, is accepted as fact by an alarmingly large proportion of U.S. citizens--10, 20, often 30 percent. In this rightwing websites have played not merely a role but the leading one. How this all reaches down to the young (who to me seem less adept than inept) I know much less about. Is TikTok, for instance, in play? I myself have been appalled by how complicit Facebook has been in the right's disinformation campaign. In addition I would note that a bitter urban-rural dichotomy has divided this spacious, widely populated nation since its very beginnings.
[Q] You once opted for Miles Davis as your desert island discography pick. I'm curious as to which of his records you spin the most? I've loved reading everything you've put out about Miles, and it's lead me to some deeper cuts like Dark Magus and Agharta, I'm wondering, what do you think of his output pre-Bitches Brew? -- Nigel, Queensland, Australia
[A] Miles Davis desert island? Didn't remember that until my editor Joe Levy unearthed a 2019 Xgau Sez where I begrudgingly named Davis my desert island artist without specifying a desert-island disc. Miles Davis at the hospital I do remember, however--kind of the same thing. All that said, the first Miles album I ever owned was 1958's Milestones, though I almost certainly bought it later than that--probably sometime after Kind of Blue came out in 1959. I played it recently and it sounded dandy. But without question it's Kind of Blue that's Davis's greatest album just like everybody says, and it's Kind of Blue that I play the most, with Jack Johnson and In a Silent Way numbers two and three and odd '70s funk-tinged rackets after that. Its lead cut "So What" in particular is such a classic and astute piece of music that it's what I request when undergoing minor surgery or one of the fancy injections us oldies sometimes undergo--it's simultaneously super-intelligent and calming, and not only that, everyone in the room is gonna like it. Davis in general is complicated for me by the fact that not only does my upstairs brother-in-law Steven play jazz trumpet but my same-floor roommate Carola loves jazz trumpet. Recently she has reunited with Sketches of Spain even though if not because she knows it's kind of schlocky, so that one has passed through my ears two-three times in the past year and sounded pretty much OK to boot. I also play Miles's pre-Columbia birth-of-the-cool stuff occasionally. The only period I don't dig is the Wayne Shorter late-'60s, which is not a final judgment, just a quirk of taste. I should add too that a 1985 Wayne Shorter interview with Greg Tate played a major role in the Tate tribute I wrote for Bookforum. It made Shorter seem like a wonderful man, which I have no doubt he is. Will reexplore.
[Q] You've certainly been quoted enough regarding your famous line about Abba. I didn't know it was famous--did you? What's it like to be at the forefront of their Rip Van Winkle act? -- Keith Shelton, San Diego
[A] Come up with a good line and it'll follow you around for life, which has advantages and disadvantages. In this case--"We have met the enemy and they are them"--I meant "them" to refer to Abba's European origins, which given Sweden's pop dominance in the Max Martin era was prescient except insofar as I actually enjoyed and admired Max Martin. But in fact I became surprisingly fond of Abba, who had always obviously been good at creating pop standards that are better than most pop standards, and was softened up considerably by Mamma Mia! and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, flicks whose indulgent takes on music fandom in general and Abba in particular I respected and thought pretty great. Nor do I have any problem with their comeback scheme, which strikes me as a lot more apt and earned than the grotesque shenanigans of the average or even above-average fiftysomething metal band.
[Q] Hey Mr. Christgau. Mongo is such a fan of yours, and maybe you can explain if you really give a shit about the Oxford comma? Mongo, being slightly denser than a fresh batch of granola with too much molasses mixed in it, gets lost without that comma. Is Mongo a twit or should he let it go? Wait, just answer the second part of that, I am a twit but I do care about the Oxford Comma. -- Mongo, Mongo's Pig Farm and Granola Factory
[A] Your attachment to said comma is anything but twittish. It is a mark of intellectual savoir-faire. The only thing I myself don't like about the "Oxford comma" is calling it that. I greatly prefer the more descriptive and less snobby-Brit sounding "serial comma"--which I also prefer to the B.C. Dreyer variant "series comma," because I think it's better to modify a noun with an adjective than with another noun. So as I invariably wrote on the blackboard for my NYU writing students: "Use serial comma, use serial comma, and use serial comma." Why? Because it's clearer, period, to always divide the three or more elements of a series of adjectives, verbs, or especially nouns, proper names, or other substantives with the same indicator, namely a comma. One reason it's called the "Oxford comma" is that Brits use it less consistently than Americans, and those who make the wrong choice wish to indicate that the right one is snobby. Many U.S. newspapers forbid it, presumably to save the precious newsprint space that tiny quarter-pica or whatever a comma represents. Dreyer's English cites what Dreyer reports is an oft-posited example of why we need it, a sentence that goes: "Highlights of his global tour included encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector." Sans serial comma, Mandela becomes not only a dildo collector, which it's safe to assume he was not, but an 800-year-old demigod when in fact he was only an ordinary demigod, as he most certainly preferred.
[Q] Stephen Hawking once said, "People who boast about their I.Q. are losers." What would you have said to Stephen Hawking? -- Thon L, Spanish Lake, Louisiana
[A] Were he still alive, which I'm sorry he's not, I'd say: "Top of the morning to you, sir. Have you ever heard those MC Hawking records? Bet you'd like 'em."
November 17, 2021
The UC Davis writers' enclave, baseball movies worth a swing, respecting the Dead, Virgil Thompson and Harold Bloom vs. the hoi polloi, the plot against democracy, and underestimating evil
[Q] Davis is fast becoming your favorite writers' enclave. I wonder if Joshua Clover and Kim Stanley Robinson know each other. -- Michael Heath
[A] They do indeed. Last time I talked to Josh, at the Pop Conference a few years ago, I brought Robinson up because I was newly infatuated and aware that they both resided in the same burg. Josh told me he knew Robinson, called him "Stan" the way Jonathan Lethem had when I emailed him with a similar query, and not only that--they were getting together the very next week, where Clover expected to school him some on economics. For sure there's plenty of economics in The Ministry for the Future. How much of it is marked by Clover I have no idea. And whaddaya know? At around the time this query came in The Paris Review was publishing Clover's praise of Robinson's novel. And as a bonus here's a Paris Review Q&A about Roadrunner.
[Q] Would you tell us about your opinion of baseball movies? Are they realistic? Writing as an outsider and not knowing but realising that any movie made about soccer is usually pretty s*** makes me wonder do you have the same feeling about your national sport -- Hugh, West of Ireland
[A] "Realistic"? Having spent approximately 15 minutes of my life in a major league dugout (profile of underrated Mets shortstop Rafael Santana, 1987 or '88 I think), I have no way of judging. But I can call to mind many convincing, insightful , and/or entertaining baseball movies. I guess my favorite is the hilarious but also incisive and exciting Moneyball, about assembling a winning Oakland A's team on a zero budget, based on a book by Michael Lewis, whose The Big Short inspired an even better movie about the 2008 mortgage scam crisis. And just recently Carola and I streamed and enjoyed an impertinent documentary called The Battered Bastards of Baseball, about a nutty yet winning minor-league team constructed from scraps when I forget which major league team pulled its franchise from Portland, Oregon. But there are many others: A League of Their Own about a women's baseball league; The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, about a team of touring ex-Negro League players; Bang the Drum Slowly, starring my once-great Dartmouth downstairs neighbor Michael Moriarty and a young Robert de Niro and based on a Mark Harris novel; the only slightly watered-down Jackie Robinson biopic 42; the much older b&w Fear Strikes Out, about the great bipolar Red Sox centerfielder Jimmy Piersall; the kiddie comedy The Bad News Bears. For some reason I've never seen the renowned Field of Dreams, which I suspected and indeed still suspect of pretentious sentimentality, though I'd probably watch it were it to stream free somewhere. I've never seen the Lou Gehrig biopic The Pride of the Yankees either. Is there a Babe Ruth one I'm forgetting?