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.

November 18, 2020

[Q] Agree 100% on your assessment of Elizabeth Cook's "Thick Georgia Woman" as a "classic in waiting." So I am wondering if you have any additional comments about the phrase "dream genocide" found later in the song? Specifically, if the dream in question refers to MLK Jr's famous quote, doesn't it summarize the staggering cultural and personal consequences of 21st century racial bias in two deft and damning words? -- Greg Morton, Blue Guy in a Red State, Idaho

[A] I love Elizabeth Cook, adore that song, and wish I could agree with you. But the couplet in question, which goes "A feather down place to hide/For your dream genocide," seems all too opaque to me, and when it comes to addressing racism--if that's the intention, which I doubt--opacity is a sin. Fuck subtlety--the more explicit the better. Yet though I must be forgetting something--is there nothing of use in the vast catalogues of the manifestly good-hearted Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton?--I can think of only one explicitly anti-racist song in all of mainstream country music: Brad Paisley's much-mocked "Accidental Racist," where "caught between Southern pride and Southern blame" and especially "They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears/We're still sifting through the rubble after 150 years" seem like the right direction to me even though the LL Cool J cameo remains an embarrassment. No longer mainstream is Jason Isbell, whose concise, powerful 2017 "White Man's World" addresses many varieties of systematic oppression with a clarity that near as I can tell shut him out of Music Row, perhaps permanently. Kudos too to Mickey Guyton's "Black Like Me," which is a lot more explicit than any of the other exceedingly scarce Black country artists--Charley Pride, Kane Brown, anybody remember Stoney Edwards?--have dared. I hope the reason is fear of the base rather than fear of Black Lives Matter, though both are distressing. But I wouldn't bet on it.

[Q] Your Dean's List for the 2010s included two deluxe editions--M.I.A.'s Maya and Rihanna's Anti. Are there any other deluxe or super-deluxe or "complete sessions" that you think improve on the original album release? For example, The White Album, or Nevermind, or Jack Johnson? Any thoughts on these big boxes in general? Thank you. -- Rob Gallagher, New York City

[A] There's a difference between deluxe editions and the boxes you name. I often didn't bother to check out boxes even when I got them in the mail, although I still wonder about that Grateful Dead one. But though I'm told I should check out the Jack Johnson and may some day, these expanded editions don't really interest me. I'd much rather go dig out a Kirby Heard or Martin Creed album few know exists, or pay close attention to a Malian artist's first U.S. release, than differentiate marginally between/among already established classics and registering the existence of previously unreleased alternates and arcana. True deluxe editions, on the other hand, are worth a listen-hear. Since I buy most of my reviewables after streaming them on Spotify, it saves me bucks to check those out the bonus cuts, which are seldom worth the time or money but in the two cases you cite transform good albums into great ones. Often, however--a relatively recent example I examined carefully is Madonna's Madame X--they have a diluting effect.

[Q] Hello Mr. Christgau. Your writings always read like you're a person much more inclined to be looking towards the future than romanticizing the past and forgive me if you've answered this before: Off the top of your head, what is the oldest piece of recorded music you're still getting a kick out of right now? -- Julian Hartmann, Bonen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

[A] When I'm working, which is most of the time, I am indeed working, sifting through new stuff. But I play a lot of older music at mealtimes when Carola and sometimes Nina will be hearing it too. Looking over the permanent-collection CDs I need to reshelve at the moment, I see Albert Ammons, the Asylum Street Spankers, One Nation Under a Groove, Astor Piazzolla, the Ramones' debut, Pretzel Logic, Billy Swan, Djelimady Tounkara, and Howlin' Wolf. But that's all post-World War II. From the '20s and '30s these days it's less likely to be early Armstrong or Ellington, which I played a lot pre-2000, or Billie Holiday, an inexhaustible perennial, than country blues, particularly Skip James, who Carola's really gotten into, the eternal Mississippi John Hurt (sometimes '60s stuff with him), or the superbly conceived and sequenced compilation Bernard MacMahon assembled for his American Epic project.

[Q] One of my teachers once said to me something along these lines: "Every other field has moved on, but aesthetics is exactly where it was 2500 years ago." He was being provocative, but I can see where he was coming from. Do you see your criticism as aesthetics? Something else? Clearly we're not just talking about beauty. There's a Monk tune called "Ugly Beauty," but is that just an evasion? Sincere thanks for this wonderfully generous online resource. -- Tim Buckley, Melbourne, Australia

[A] I certainly don't see myself as an aesthetician. That's a branch of philosophy, and while I took a few relevant philosophy courses in college and have dabbled around in aesthetics a little as any serious critic should, I'd rather immerse in art than in theory about it. But I have dabbled enough to know that in one respect your prof was setting you up for a fall. The key is that 2500-year crack. That puts us back with the Greeks, right? The Greeks had their Dionysian fling, as I discuss in the now finally unembargoed Dionysus essay that began its life with my long-ago Guggenheim world-history-of-pop project and took form as an EMP lecture prominently displayed up front in Is It Still Good to Ya?--but not as far up front as another repurposed essay from that collection, another EMP presentation that serves as a prologue: "Good to Ya, Not for Ya: Rock Criticism vs. the Guilty Pleasure." Without going into any detail and thus steamrollering many relevant cavils and objections, just say this: the rise of Romanticism really put a crimp in the hegemony of classical aesthetics. One way of describing that crimp is to say that ultimately it valorized as beautiful various usages most classicists would believe were, like Monk says, ugly, thus reminding us that most of the Greeks who invented democracy were in fact snobs who denied citizenship to the lower orders. Without identifying with Romanticism except in the most general way, just say I've devoted my career and indeed my life to fucking that shit up. "Exactly where it was 2500 years ago"? Bushwa. (Most recent relevant book read is a tough one: Johann Gottfried Herder's Song Loves the Masses. See also the Terry Eagleton and Marshall Berman essays that close Book Reports. The Raymond Williams too, why not? Go crazy. You asked for it.)

[Q] Did you know Slim Gaillard played an important role as musician and rapper in the fantastic 1941 dance sequence for Hellzapoppin featuring Frankie Manning and Whitey's Lindy Hoppers? Did you know I met Slim Gaillard in London in 1988? I did not know he was half-Jewish--he didn't look it. -- Judy Pritchett, Montclair, New Jersey

[A] I did not know any of these things, although as we are aware and my readers aren't, I have known you yourself, the former Judy Rosenberg, since 1962. I'm also well aware that you became an expert on swing-era dancing in your forties and from the late '80s until his death a month short of his 95th birthday in 2009 were the companion and manager of the great lindy hopper Frankie Manning, who with your help I taught at NYU a few years back after deciding that my music history course was shortchanging the swing era (stuck the Boswell Sisters in there too). Here's the Gaillard-Manning sequence you cite:

And here's some more subdued Manning-Pritchett stepping in 1992, when Manning was 78:

October 21, 2020

And It Don't Stop.

Streamed lectures and streamed music, the jazz apple and the rock orange, the enduring skippability of "Oar," the Lion King vs. the Black Panther, and the power of "WAP." Special guest: Carola Dibbell

[Q] Your assorted dispatches from the EMP Pop Conferences have been the inspiration for both my initial attendance and my eventual presentations. I assume your recent medical issues were the reason you didn't submit for this year's conference originally scheduled for April. I noticed I didn't see you at any of the virtual sessions happening this month. Considering your enthusiasm for the conference, I was wondering what the reason(s) was for your absence. -- Richard Cobeen, Berkeley

[A] I am not a Zoom guy to say the least. Are you, really? EMP has been major for me both socially and professionally, a kind of lifeline almost. Presentations I did there for an audience of my peers, usually requiring weeks of work no journalistic outlet would publish much less pay for, now bedeck both Book Reports and Is It Still Good to Ya?: Charlie Gillett and Henry Pleasants, Dionysus and Lil Wayne. But I cherish the social aspects even more, the mixing and mingling and walking around, the chance to say hello to people I see seldom or nowhere else like Carl Wilson, Josh Clover, Michaelangelo Matos, the Powers-Weisbard combo, and for that matter yourself--great teaching-music presentation on that bill with my sister a few years ago. I also valued the chance to migrate from one set of talks to another. I sent in a December proposal for the later Covid-cancelled EMP but bowed out long before the pandemic because it was clear my aching thigh would make travel onerous and walking around impossible. (Thigh's been much better since I had lumbar fusion in June but still not necessarily EMP-ready.) And continuing disability has cut into my time. In addition, however, streamed lectures just aren't live lectures the way streamed music just isn't live music, a major reason I'm chagrined but not ashamed to admit I've watched very few livestreamed concerts. Also, I'm such a fuddy-duddy that I haven't mastered Zoom as a technology--one funeral, one baby shower, that's been about it. (Carola keeps up with her women's group on Zoom. Many glitches.) We'll see what happens on multiple fronts, and I can't imagine disengaging from EMP altogether--it's meant too much to me. But how I age remains to be seen.

[Q] I was surprised to see Louis Armstrong's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man missing from even the worklist of your top 50 albums article. You included other box sets (James Brown's Star Time) and you've also called Louis Armstrong "the greatest artist of the 20th century" and "my favorite artist." What gives? Too much filler on the Portrait? The collection of late-20's/early-30's songs where his vocals are equal billing with his trumpet seems to me to be some kind of musical peak few have reached. -- Dan M., Bucharest, Romania

[A] I kept jazz albums off the Rolling Stone list because I'm a rock critic and fRolling Stone is a rock magazine. Carola made her own call and included Kind of Blue, but I just didn't want to get involved in an apples-and-oranges problem--first Misterioso, then Portrait of the Artist (which I thought had gone out of print but am delighted to report is still buyable, go for it if you have the cash, folks), then Kind of Blue or should it be Jack Johnson, then Ellington's Flaming Youth or maybe I should dig out Sonny Rollins's A plus G-Man or who knows what-all. As for Star Time, well, fuck it: James Brown is one of the two or three greatest artists in rock or if you insist rock-era history and Star Time is the only album like object available to prove it, including Sex Machine and The Big Payback. Strictly following rules in such vast and theoretically murky enterprise as the Stone 500 is the path of absurdity.

[Q] You refer back to some of the records covered in the first Consumer Guide in your intro to the seventies guide, and use the parenthetical "(I admit)" twice--once to refer to your praise for Procol Harum's A Salty Dog, and in a corresponding reference to your dismissal of Skip Spence's Oar. You've covered A Salty Dog as a probable B+ --still sounds pretty good to me, definitely less afflicted by pretensions than their others. But Oar you've never commented on since the original C-. So . . . do you like it? At least, better than you said you did over half a century ago? -- Ryan M, Dallas

[A] Oy, Oar. Yet for some perverse reason I clicked over to Spotify and found a version that seemed to include 20 or so tracks, I didn't count. This is a cult record so beloved that if they left the tape running while Spence used the shitter with the door open the plops and gurgles would probably show up on a deluxe collectors edition. On Spotify I got to track four or five while I pruned my email and moved on. What can I say--as I hope you've figured out by now, slow records by depressive and/or drug-addled space cases just ain't my thing. Still love the first Moby Grape album, where Spence's "Omaha" is a peak. Very little else--hopeless druggie for most of his life. I read that he left four kids behind when he died of lung cancer at 53. Hope they're at least OK.

[Q] Beyonce's most recent project, the The Lion King soundtrack, has been compared to the Black Panther soundtrack. I think it offers more in its instrumentation (though perhaps more obvious in its use of African music and artists than Kendrick Lamar on Black Panther). It's not as "smooth." Do you find it too busy? Interested to know since it's been re-released to coincide with the Black Is King film (she's added "Black Parade" and removed the spoken word parts). -- James, Chester, U.K.

[A] I love her "Black Parade" enough to have bought a copy, but in general I seem to be turning into some kind of weird Beyonce truther or something--recognize her preeminence and mostly appreciate her public presence but just don't dig her music the way many will feel I should. Tuning in on Spotify at your behest, I found the Lion King music so cutesy, disjointed, and plot-specific that I only got through six or seven tracks (and yes, I went back and checked just to make sure I hadn't just been in a bad mood the first time). Far as I'm concerned, comparing it to the carefully sequenced Black Panther soundtrack is almost incomprehensibly silly. And let me also say that I am very much disinclined to check out her or anyone else's music-you-can-only understand-when-watching-the-visuals. I don't review videos, period, and am old and established enough to remain quite the crank about it.

[Q] Any thoughts on "WAP" by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion and the media's reaction? -- James, Liverpool

[A] What's not to like? I'm definitely a Cardi B fan, and while I've always found Megan a little macho, her recent assault experience has focused her mind considerably. So if these two established female rappers, a welcome and uncommon thing in itself, want to turn generations of big-dick mythos inside out, I say both yum and more power to them. As for media reaction, I don't know what's happening in the U.K. but nobody I take seriously over here has complained enough to get my attention (although it's true that I ignore ignoramuses so steadfastly that "media reaction" often escapes my attention altogether). Your question did, however, remind me to watch the video, which I did with pleasure four-five times: witty, visually deft, and definitely sexy despite and sometimes because of its inevitable exaggerations--loved the big cats. I must add, however, that logocentric as I am I continue to find City Girls' "Pussy Talk" sexier. Should no doubt check out the video on that one too. (P.S. Just did--waste of time.)

[Q] Hello, very much appreciate you Bob but this question is for Carola. I'm interested to know what brought you to select Madonna's Immaculate Collection in your recent list for Rolling Stone's 500. I ask because it indicates a change in opinion since the letter you wrote in 1992 for Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonnell. I won't quote the letter because I don't want to misrepresent it and I understand it covers more than just Madonna, but I'm curious to know the motivations for your selection and what, if anything, changed your mind on her. -- James Kean, Liverpool, U.K.

[A] Carola Dibbell writes: Thanks for noticing things I said so long ago about Madonna. My daughter, a big fan even as a toddler (when she called Madonna "Mmm"), eventually won me over. While I've never considered Madonna a feminist hero, I've come to savor many of her songs--and yeah, that's a lot about the beats, the arrangements, but whether she's doing baby talk or throaty woman she does own them. While I pondered your question, Bob put on Immaculate Collection. "Holiday" opened and everything else stopped--the track had me with Jellybean Martinez's 30-second intro before Madonna opened her mouth. Then there were "Cherish," "Vogue," "Live to Tell"--but not "Deeper and Deeper," a favorite of mine from Erotica, which came out two years after the compilation.

September 16, 2020

And It Don't Stop.

Several 30 seconds of greatness, formalists formally considered, Ray Davies informally considered, list-making explained, hip-hop unexplained, and the "The Harry Smith B-Sides" expurgated

[Q] Hi Bob, thank you for your years of attentive pleasure. I'm closer to my own delight thanks to how you've taught me to listen. Curious: what comes to mind when you think of your favorite 30 seconds of music? (A friend I asked this offered Herbie Hancock's intro to Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes" and Doug Martsch's bonkers guitar solo in Built to Spill's "Girl." I'd choose, I guess, the horns-answered-by-piano-rumble ending the first chorus of Lee Dorsey's "Get Out of My Life Woman" or the heavenly feather-light guitar that enters at 9:26 in Franco's "Tailleur.") Does your enjoyment attach to moments (a brief solo, a crescendo, a vocal flight or cry, a musical phrase of paralyzing beauty) as much as to whole songs or albums? Grateful as always. -- Jay B. Thompson, Seattle

[A] My first response to this impossible question (because there are so many and they're so fleeting) was that I treasure moments much longer than that, especially whole songs and beyond that whole albums. Only then I immediately began thinking of possibilities and checking them out. So having determined that Johnny Griffin's solo on Monk's "In Walked Bud" was far too long I'll leave my answer at first-response impulses unless Carola has the perfect answer when we discuss this, as we will. So the two artists who first occurred to me were Wussy, where the "Teenage Wasteland" lead proved a nonstarter before the "Airborne" verse with the "yours pile"-"floor tile" rhyme held up to 30-second parsing, and then--how could I forget??--the Beatles, whose first "Yeah yeah yeah"s-plus-verse on "She Loves You" and "Please Mr. Postman" outro are both a touch short but what the hell. Only then I thought of Franco & Rochereau's Omona Wapi, where 0:19-0:52 of the lead "Lisanga Ya Ba Nganga" is mostly Rochereau and his men, first chorale and then a solo turn, and irresistibly beautiful in my opinion. As is the whole track, come to that. The winner so far.

[Q] Do you consult with any other critics when compiling your year and decade-end lists? Carola included. -- AJ, London

[A] Of course I do. Why not, it's something to talk about as the year ends, and when I was at the Voice I did it all the time. These days, however, I converse regularly with very few critics, Joe Levy mostly. I also check out unfamiliar titles on lists published in December. But I always have an excellent preliminary database because I've not only reviewed and rated most of the likely candidates but put them in rough Dean's List order. So over the years most of my calculations have involved relistening and finalizing that order, which does move around quite a bit in December and January. And always there's input from Carola, who doesn't consider herself a critic but whose comments on what's playing in the dining room color my writing every month of the year.

[Q] I've been beguiled by your use of the term "formalism" in reference to bands and artists. In a general sense I can grok what you are saying but am wondering does the use of the descriptor formalist connote a sense of stylistic predictability or derivativeness? Is there an antonym in your critical arsenal for music that is the antithesis of formalistic? Below are a couple of abridged examples. It appears so often, and isn't necessarily correlated with whether you find something pedestrian or worthwhile. -- Martin Cassidy, Nashville

[A] Van Halen: Van Halen II [Warner Bros, 1979] So how come formalists don't love the shit out of these guys? Not because they're into dominating women, I'm sure. C+

R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction [I.R.S., 1985] But as formalists they valorize the past by definition, and if their latest title means anything it's that they're slipping inexorably into the vague comforts of regret, mythos, and nostalgia. B+

Let me note to begin that the "they" in the Van Halen needs a clearer referent, a fuckup on my part--no telling whether it indicates the band or the formalists. I meant the band, thus suggesting that formalists may be clever, aesthetically sophisticated fellows, but they're probably just as sexist as the metal clods they disdain. And that's a start: formalists are aesthetes who may well be jerks in other respects and often lack the idiosyncrasy that makes pop music feel special. What do Van Halen and R.E.M. share? Both are technically brilliant bands that delight in recapitulating the musical essentials of their chosen genres, metal and folk-rock/indie-rock. That much only a bigger clod would deny. In Van Halen both Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth take their respective roles to new levels, just like R.E.M.'s guitar polymath Peter Buck and charismatically elusive Michael Stipe, whose early refusal to pronounce the band's lyrics said so much it didn't actually come out and say--that their collegiate following didn't actually care what the songs were "about" because the songs' sound was all that mattered to them. Preferring R.E.M.'s materials to Van Halen's and noting both that I warmed briefly to Van Halen when 1984 led with the great single "Jump" and that Stipe soon abandoned his mush-mouthed shtick, which in retrospect was what it was. But this isn't to say formalists can't be fun. My favorite example is Zion, Illinois's Shoes, who I don't recall even touring (though they did release a live EP). Basically, they just made records. And you could make a case that the Ramones were the greatest formalists in rock history. But after venturing that in relatively modern pop music it's a special province of power pop I'll say sayonara to a question best answered by a book no sufficiently smart person is likely to write.

[Q] Re: Ray Davies. Have not seen much, if any, reference or opinion on him in your review or other writings. Would really appreciate your thought on his writing with the Kinks and solo.

Thank you.

P.S. Your comments regarding Chicago and World Party made me wince. -- Frederick Bulman, Athol, Massachusetts

[A] This question addresses another great '60s bands that did its best work before the Consumer Guide got started. (Personal to Creedence questioner: so to an extent does yours.) I did actually publish a Kinks piece when I was just getting started at the Voice in early 1969, and it's OK for something I wrote overnight, as I did at the beginning there because post-Esquire I resented my $40 fee. And I paid a lot of attention to them when they moved from Reprise to RCA and commenced a theatrical phase that I never thought jelled, though at times I admired it. (Dave Hickey did a great review of one of their shows for me.) So let me say first of all that I love the Kink Kronikles comp and then add that Ray Davies wrote two of the greatest songs in rock history: "Waterloo Sunset," a clear candidate for number one, and "Lola." But I've never been sold on the RCA stuff and stand by the reviews I published except to say that some of the B plusses may well just have been B's. Basically, I think Davies has the terrible politics/worldview of a professional nostalgiac even though only such a nostalgiac could have written "Waterloo Sunset," which bottles up and decants the respect and affection due a past that deserves plenty of both. He regards himself as some kind of satirist or public observer but too often he's soft in the head. I've listened to some of his better-received recent stuff and didn't think it was terrible. But though I did try, I didn't think it was compelling either.

P.S. My Chicago and World Party reviews were supposed to make their fans wince. Glad the trick worked.

[Q] Bob: Could you tell us a little bit more about your relationship with hip-hop at the moment? I'm interested in how you decide what to write about these days, given the vast and ever-expanding universe of new music in the genre. Are there writers or publications you read regularly who keep you clued in? Do you struggle to keep your ears fresh, a problem that seems to affect a lot of longtime hip-hop followers given the radical changes (geographical, cultural, technological) the music has gone through over the last few decades? Are there subsets that interest you or speak to you more than others? Trends or sub-styles you find yourself gravitating toward or being put off by? I think you've written so well about so much hip-hop, and I would never want you to trade your idiosyncrasies for a more programmatic approach. But sometimes I wonder how, for example, Serengeti gets so much ink, and Drake so little? -- Richard, Atlanta

[A] Except for Pitchfork a little and to an even lesser extent Rolling Stone, I don't look anywhere for hip-hop advice. That includes the New York Times, where I've found Jon Caramanica's numerous discoveries of so little personal use that even when I do check one out the intent is basically informational--two plays max, usually one. I've written here before about my informed skepticism in re Soundcloud rap and how much I've come to hate the word "bitch." I do check out most high-charting hip-hop albums but seldom get to play three. Moreover, hip-hop is a singles music more than ever and I review albums; hip-hop is video-oriented and I haven't paid attention to music videos in well nigh thirty years. Even so I write about a lot of hip-hop for a 78-year-old white guy, just not at the same clip as when I was a 48-year-old white guy. I seem now to be one of the few critics to pay much mind to alt-rap, which has obviously lost what veneer of hip it ever had. So if it's somebody like Serengeti, who puts out a shitload of music much of which is to my ears at least engaging or interesting, I make my report, while though people have been telling me Drake is a pop god for years--my NYU students loved him--I've decided again and again that he's a pop bore. As in most music these days, I pay more mind to female artists than male, not because it's politically correct but because--statistically, far as I'm concerned--women are more excited about making music in almost every genre than men are, and have fresher perspectives to bring as well. That said, I find Buffalo's Westside Gunn crew of interest and just wrote about two terrific EP-length Black Thought "mixtapes" that got extraordinarily little attention. At 48, he has an official solo debut album coming out on a major this week. About time. I'll be on it.

[Q] The #1 reissue of 2020 will probably be The Harry Smith B-Sides due October 16, a four-CD box with the flip side of every 78 Smith included on his Anthology of American Folk Music. The box was years in the making but since the events of this summer, the producers chose to omit three tracks due to racist language--Bill and Belle Reed's "You Shall Be Free," the Bentley Boys' "Henhouse Blues," Uncle Dave Macon's "I'm the Child to Fight" (all on YouTube). All three songs feature the N-word in the lyrics. Do you agree with the producers' decision and how does omitting those songs which feature the same language you'd hear on many rap albums differ from the decision made by Clear Channel radio during that debacle years ago, or the controversy regarding the music of Kate Smith or Michael Jackson or R. Kelly? I think the decision is the PC thing to do and I'm OK with it, but wonder what the Dean thinks. -- LM, New York

[A] In general I'm opposed to censoring history, and having checked out all three of these, only the Macon via YouTube, I think omitting them is a big mistake. These are very interesting songs. Uncle Dave Macon, who in my fuzzily unresearched recollection was less than any kind of racial progressive (as very few white Southerners were back then and all too few are now, which is not to make special claims for white Northerners), sending black people also ID'd as "farmers" south is singled out as proof of high cruelty, as slaves sent further south in the 19th century had always said. In "Henhouse Blues," the C-word-that-rhymes-with-"moon"-not-N-word dreams of political success as a Black man only to further dream that--uh-oh, horror of horrors, maybe we should leave this politics thing alone--there's a woman president. And the "You Shall Be Free" saga is amazing, more than I can detail. To sum up what I think I've found out, the melody was lifted from a Black spiritual. The Reeds' version proved so fetching that unabashed tune thief Woody Guthrie recorded a rewrite called "We Shall Be Free," which was then lifted by Bob Dylan in an "I Shall Be Free" that began its life on 1962's Freewheelin' Bob Dylan as mostly womanizing and often arrantly sexist but also, in a few of its many verses, quite progressively race-conscious; in later iterations it attacked or at least mocked Barry Goldwater. The Reeds' version includes a stanza that goes: "Some people say a N-word won't steal/I caught three in my cornfield/One had a bushel, one had a peck" . . . and then, I think (but can this be?), "One had a rope around his neck." So what can that mean? Is the thief packaged ready for lynching, or has he recently escaped a lynching? Assuming that word is "rope," one or the other is what makes the most sense, but only if you assume making sense is the intention; after all, in the Guthrie version I've been playing "N-word" becomes "preacher," a great idea by me, and what I hear as the rope line turns into, Genius avers, "Other one had a roastin' ear down his neck," a much less great idea if it's even accurate. Should we really be discouraged from pondering these imponderables by omitting the Reeds' recording from this crucial archival reissue? Or is it just that mere record buyers may take the complications the wrong way? Sorry--I'm absolutely opposed whether my own account is useful or totally misses the boat, because either is possible and further investigation is called for. And as a PS I'll add that when Black rappers use the N-word, they're exercising legitimate claims on it that no white person shares. So that's a bullshit point.

August 19, 2020

And It Don't Stop.

Life with (and without) cats, some thoughts on the back catalog of James Brown (and Sinatra and Nat King Cole), Lady A versus the schlocksters, born again Dylan versus born again Kanye

[Q] Your wonderful post about The Zoo compelled me to finally pose this quite personal question. As far as I'm aware, nowhere in your canon have you ever mentioned having pets. Perhaps your living situation entails preventative rules, but since relationships with animals can be as profound as those with human family members, it's almost odd to imagine you never having enjoyed one. Any such stories from your love-filled life? -- Erin, Austin, Texas

[A] I had two cats as a child, neither of whom my mother, in most respects an exceedingly kind woman, would let sleep indoors. The first, a petite brown-and-white female called Taffy, was evicted and left in what my mother swore was "a good neighborhood" after gifting us with a dead bird on our back stoop. The second, a sleek gray male I called Pussycat so some cozier name wouldn't endear him to me, figured out the score and ran away twice, breaking my heart anyway, especially since I'd actually found him the first time. Carola, on the other hand, had at least 40 cats as a child including Crazy Baby, who went into labor on the dining room table one Thanksgiving. It was from two different litters in Carola's childhood abode that in early 1974, around when we began trying to conceive a child, we selected tiny gray Jane and bolder black Enterprise. Both were still with us when we adopted Nina in 1985, but by 1988 both had died, which Nina noticed and cried about. So for her fourth birthday we adopted a brother-sister pair. The exquisite, eccentric tabby female we named Orko (the androgynous sprite in Nina's beloved She-Ra) after she proved no Janeen (the intrepid secretary in Nina's beloved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), whose life Carola saved by discovering she would eat delicatessen turkey. The orange male we imagined as a red-headed German butcher and named Oscar. (At left above, clockwise from bottom, are Oscar, Carola, Orko and Nina.) Carola was very fond of Orko even though she liked to jump onto the bed and block Mom's nostrils with a paw to wake her up. But in all her multifelineous life, Carola has never met a cat she admired as much as Oscar, and neither, obviously, have I--not only was he perceptive and affectionate, nuts about mushrooms and good to his nutty sister, but he would let you scratch his belly and then salute you by passing his right paw over his eyes. The day we took him to the vet to be put down at 18, I lifted his wasted body to the bed and scratched his belly and he saluted me one last time. About two years later, a wobbly but still exquisite Orko expired on the floor. Feeling we'd never top Oscar, plus vacation sitters were getting harder to find, we've been catless ever since. But in December of 2016, in the only good news I can recall from that awful month, Nina took in brother-and-sister rescue kittens: agile, brilliant calico Cinnamon (above, right) and big, goofy, attention-craving tuxedo Kirk--the names they came in with, though the Kirk-Enterprise pairing is notable. Nina has proven both a fine portrait photographer and a devoted mother, once rescuing Cinnamon from a fire escape a floor up in the dead of a rainy night. Carola and I call them the grandchildren.

[Q] Starting with the Star Time box, the James Brown reissue program of the '90s was so revelatory and exciting so first let me thank you for turning me and I'm sure many others on to his amazing music which might not have gotten our attention otherwise as white boys. So my questions are why did you stop reviewing his albums in the late '90s (the last one you reviewed was his Say It Live and Loud concert) and do you recommend any of the four later releases (Dead on the Heavy Funk, Ballads, Love Power Peace, Funk Power 1970)? -- Ed Stephens, New York City

[A] At a certain point sorting out JB comps became too much work, especially since I had nowhere to write about them--my annual Xmas best-of roundup in the Voice had plenty of other fish to fry, and after I got canned there such detailed breakdowns weren't appropriate for the venues that were paying me. There was one partial exception, however: the James Brown obit essay I did for Rolling Stone Christmas week of 2006. That's reprinted in Is It Still Good to Ya? and hence embargoed until November of this year. But the credit line says "Substantially revised" for a reason--that essay was used as the basis for the rather different JB piece I wanted to preserve in my collection. Hence two discographical grafs were deleted from the RS piece, and for what they're worth, here they are:

Loving the box and two or three live ones, you'll wonder how to proceed. Many of the glorious reissues of JB's CD-era revival--Dead on the Heavy Funk, Roots of a Revolution, Soul Pride: The Instrumentals 1960-1969, Messin' With the Blues--are now available only used from usurers; the matched 1996 Foundations of Funk and Make It Funky double-CDs vary Star Time for fans who want funk to the exclusion of r&b and soul; most of the renowned In the Jungle Groove is also available in briefer form on the box, making it for serious students only even though Brown is the rare artist who improves with length. But the finest of the classic comps remains: 1988's Motherlode, where Cliff White exhumes the unreleased "Can I Get Some Help" and rescues the head-on nine-minute "People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul" from the Slaughter's Big Rip-Off soundtrack. The string syrup saturating much of the useful recent Ballads collection isn't ruinous, and soon enough Dave Matthews and Pee Wee Ellis chip in some funk and Brown has turned Porgy into a woman protecting a guy who's getting manhandled by the cops. The choicest of the many sidepeople collections is the thoroughly enjoyable Pass the Peas: The Best of the J.B.'s, which establishes that when James himself is announcing "Gotta have a funky good time," said good time seems incalculably more necessary. The only recent best-of I play is the second JB volume in Universal's budget Millennium Collection series--'70s masterpieces surrounding an embarrassing add-on called "Down and Out in New York City," it's perfect for vacation travel.

James Brown could be embarrassing, absolutely. Arrogant. Self-deluded. Coming up in an r&b business where the only way he could get King Records' Syd Nathan to cut Live at the Apollo was to pay for it himself, he inherited the hits-plus-filler theory of LP production, and the few JB studio albums that hold up as wholes are hard to find. So much of the superb There It Is has been recycled that it's hardly missed, but for the silly Hot Pants to pass to the usurers is a serious matter, and long-lost King product like Super Bad and Cold Sweat never reached CD outside of Japan. A few oddments remain, however. Gettin' Down to It, a what-the-?? piano-trio record from around the time of "The Popcorn" that transforms "Cold Sweat" into cocktail music and "Time After Time" into funk, will pique Ballads fans. The all-new material on 1998's I'm Back is pretty damn funky for a 65-year-old some say was 70. And then there's 1973's The Payback, which probably remains in print because hip-hoppers like its aura of blaxploitation, although Brown's revenge fantasy never made the flick it was written for.

[Q] A few months ago, there was a question here asking for your thoughts on ballad singers Dean Martin and Bobby Darin and you responded by saying you didn't care for either of them preferring Sinatra and many black pop singers starting with Nat King Cole. You've already written that your favorite Sinatra albums are Songs for Swinging Lovers and Nice 'n Easy so I'd like to ask where to start with the best Nat King Cole albums? -- Harry M, New York

[A] First of all, I would definitely add to my Sinatra A list In the Wee Small Hours and the late, deliberately creaky, self-selected old-man compilation Everything Happens to Me. As for Cole, well, as with Clapton a while back whaddaya know? An essay on Cole, written in 1992 and called "Across the Great Divide," leads my highly non-online 1998 Harvard University Press collection Grown Up All Wrong. You probably want two Cole collections, one of the '40s piano hipster and one of the pop smoothie nonetheless capable of 1948's surpassingly strange "Nature Boy." For the hipster: Rhino's Jumpin' at Capitol or conceivably the even jazzier Complete After Midnight Sessions. For the great crooner: probably the much spottier 2001 double The Nat King Cole Story, which like 1998's The Greatest Hits and 2005's The World of Nat King Cole I got for free back in the good old days and can't advise offhand on duplications etc. But one of each will certainly be a start.

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