Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

In Memory of the Dave Clark Five

This column is dedicated to the Dave Clark Five primarily because the Dave Clark Five, a totally unpretentious yet much-despised group that was ascendant during my favorite period in rock & roll &, 1964 through 1966, once recorded a hit called "Bits and Pieces," a wonderfully serviceable rock throwaway, raucous and meaningless, perfect for shouting into the night. This column will collect bits and pieces of observation that interest me. Its unstructured quality will reflect the fact that my life is also in bits and pieces at the moment, and even music can't pull it together. I am writing because it's been quite a while, and it always makes me feel better to say hello to you folks out there in newspaper-land. I am also writing because I have made a pact with myself: I have sworn to write a real column for every Consumer Guide I concoct. There's lots of powerful good and powerful mediocre records out there for me to rate, and that will always get me off my ass.

My form has to be the travel diary. Over the past two months I have spent a lot of time driving and flying around the country. Such transience, especially when accompanied by other kinds of stress, gives music an exacerbated importance, somewhat distorted because my exposure becomes at once more selective and more intensive in the absence of the usual flow of new releases, press information, publications, and industry gossip. I gain new perspectives. Two years ago I was driving across the desert in a drive-away with no radio--no radio, the desert, can you dig it? At around sunset, somewhere in New Mexico--Grants, I believe--we picked up a hitchhiker. He was about eighteen, and he had grown up about two miles from me in Queens. One day in September he had just stuck out his thumb at the Whitestone Bridge. One ride had taken him to Columbia, Ohio, where he stayed a month and stuck out his thumb again. That ride took him to Grants. He had been waiting fifteen minutes when we picked him up. He was wearing light clothing, and all he carried in his pack was some socks and underwear and--get ready--a portable stereo. Plus some records, of course. He tried to balance the stereo on the seat, but it was too bumpy, so he decided to cradle it in his two hands, cushioning it against the shock in midair. We listened to both sides of the first Grateful Dead album before his arms gave out. And it was that kid's unspoiled faith in the benignness of the universe, as we cut through the desert night, that transformed the Grateful Dead for me forever.

Which tale should properly segue into . . . .

On the Road, Mid-September. The truism holds that you can't really dig rock unless you know something about dope. Mostly as an index of my determined lack of enlightenment, I offer a countertruism. I don't think you can really dig rock & roll & unless you have some feeling for automobiles. This is not, perish the thought, to downgrade dope, but rather to remind everyone that the roots of rock have almost as much to do with driving as with sex and dancing. In the fifties all those things were intertwined into the adolescent experience. Not only did Chuck Berry write songs about driving; he also wrote songs that were good to drive to, that made you want to bang the steering wheel as you bopped around. And then there is the story of the great fifties producer (his identity changes with the story) who would not approve a mix until he played it back through the Motorola speakers he kept in his studio.

I write all this as a loyal New Yorker who didn't learn to drive until 1964. My feeling for automobiles is not of the bopping-around make-out-at-the-drive-in variety. By 1964, however, I had also logged thirty-five thousand hitchhiking miles, and shortly thereafter I became a newspaper reporter, driving fifty miles a day through the wilds of Essex County, New Jersey, with nothing between me and ennui but baseball and rock and roll. And so I care deeply about the way the car radio serves to shore you up against loneliness, distance, and boredom and keep you in touch with the outside world. A good deal of my affection for the AM band is a tribute to the way it maintains artificial energy levels. A speed trip, as my disapproving co-culturists might have it. And must there always be something wrong with that?

In any case, there I was in September, preparing to transport my soul to Colorado for a year. I had just acquired my fifth car since 1964 and discovered to my chagrin that the radio didn't work. Got it fixed Thursday to leave Saturday. On Friday night, during the last of moving, it conked out again. The plan had been to catch Crosby-Stills-Nash-Young late at the Fillmore and then pack all my stuff, including seven hundred albums and my good stereo, into the car for a dawn send-off. CSNY were great, thank Y, the best live act I've seen in months, and they played until after three, but that wasn't why I put off my departure for another nine hours. Uh-uh. I wanted to get the radio fixed.

Around three P.M. I take off, radio sound, moving from the Met game to WMCA to WABC, which depresses me as always, then on to a station in Allentown presided over by a resident maniac named, I think Super-Lou. Submarine-race watching lives. Nighttime. WLS Chicago. WCFL Chicago. WBZ Boston. Ernest Tubb in Nashville. Loretta Lynn tells the gals that if they want their man to act like a man, they'd better show him that they're a woman, and poses the age-old question: "Should a man do the dishes?" Static conceals her answer. Porter Wagoner tells how a figure in white robes once dissuaded him from shooting down an enemy soldier. WCFL is playing lots of oldies: the Shirelles, Rosie & the Originals, "Lipstick on Your Collar." I am sustained by the new Beatles album, "Suspicious Minds," and, yes, "Sugar Sugar." Daytime. WCOL Columbia. A local star named J.D. Blackwell sings a song called "Little Boy Red" that sounds like a cross between "Bread and Butter" and "Rainy Day Women 12 & 35"; I know I will never hear it again. CKLW Windsor. My first contact with Dionne's "Loving Feeling"; fabulous. The prevailing social theme seems to be "get together," a phrase that recurs in new records by the Hardy Boys, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and Steppenwolf. Football and baseball through St. Louis and then across Kansas at night, sporadic voices singing country-western songs. I approach my destination in Colorado as the sun comes up. Someone on the radio is reading the menu of every high-school lunchroom in the county.

Colorado, Late September. Colorado was calculated to change my head, and it does, but not by turning me into a full-time GI organizer, as I had planned. It takes me six days to break up with Ellen, my political ally and consort of over three years. In the three weeks she's been there without me she's decided the time has come for us to smash monogamy. One of us has to leave, so I do. Before that, however, we undergo another drastic head change, this one chemically induced. We spend the early hours in the mountains, but as we are beginning to come down, we get into the car and put on the radio. "Suspicious Minds" comes on; I exult. "AM radio is good," I say. "That's Bob's message to the world," Ellen comments, but when the driver laughs, she insists, "Don't laugh; some people don't have anything near that important to say." Far on, Ellen, and thanks for the compliment. Later that evening all voyagers amuse themselves by listening to "White Rabbit," with the speakers pressed to both ears. I do this, too, but what really makes me larger happens later, driving along a mountain road in some strange after-calm. This song with horns, Tijuana horns, and a vocal compounded of Billy Joe Royal and Sam Cooke comes on. It sounds so extraordinary to me.

Los Angeles, Early October. I escape Colorado with a lot of Consumer Guide records and a few standbys: Flying Burrito Bros., Velvet Underground, Wilson Pickett, Immortal Otis, Between the Buttons. My host is Larry Dietz, a mostly retired pop writer who still gets mailings from a few companies, and I latch on to the two obvious ones from Capitol. Abbey Road captivates me as might be expected, but The Band is even better, an A-plus record if I've ever rated one.

That should come as no surprise to those of you--which I assume means most of you--who regarded Music From Big Pink as epochal. Though I somehow always managed to avoid saying so in print, I didn't. That the Woodstock wonders had come up with something original--the way each voice captured what is most essential about both soul and country inflection while imitating neither, for instance--was obvious the first time I heard the dub. But I also knew that even though it was theoretically everything rock should be, right down to that human roughness around the edges, I was in fact bored by the record and found most of it lugubrious. This opinion was at once so subjective and so unusual that I tended to share it only with friends. I kept trying to dig the record, but I always found myself liking the songs better when they were performed elsewhere. "I Shall Be Released" is one of Dylan's best songs, but I would rather hear Bobby Darin sing it than Richard Manuel, and there are even versions of "The Weight" that I prefer to The Band's, which is admittedly a joy. Finally I decided I'd been chicken long enough. Almost gleefully, I planned a column titled "The Final Apostasy" to castigate their second album.

I like the record instead, and in retrospect I can work out a lot of smart critical reasons why. Lyrics: John Phillips is more facile, John Sebastian more charming, Randy Newman more subtle, but Jaime Robbie Robertson (assuming he is the sole lyricist, probably an oversimplification) has become a more inventive writer than any of them, the best in America this side of Dylan. Except for Dylan, he is the only American songwriter to write good fictional/dramatic songs ("Rockin' Chair," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") and the only one to master the semiliterate tone, in which grammatical barbarisms and colloquial ellipses transcend affectation to enrich and qualify a song's meaning. Music: Big Pink won much praise for its natural instrumentation--each musician played one instrument with no overdubbing, so that every cut simulated live performance. But on this record Garth Hudson not only remains the best organist in rock but also fills in on seven additional instruments. Except for Robertson, who engineered, all the others double up as well. Yet because the overdubbed music has a casual, almost unprofessional edge to it--as do the lyrics, the vocals, the lead parts--that natural sound is unaffected. There is no distracting gloss to distort the added color, no studio effect.

As always, however, such analysis is extraneous. The Band is an A-plus record because it makes me jump around. "Across the Great Divide," the first cut, is to the dirgelike "Tears of Rage," which opens Big Pink, as a storefront church on East 7th Street is to Riverside Baptist. If the first album captures country-soul feeling without imitating it, this one does the same with old-time rock and roll. It is folksier and funkier, but after one listen I find myself in wholehearted approval of The Band's practice of closing their live sets with something by Little Richard.

I have access to a car in L.A. and note with some displeasure that KRLA, formerly the best station in America, is tightening its programming. I also notice that half the songs on the radio are about breaking up. And I also descend into a Sunset Strip hell-hole called Thee Experience to catch the Flying Burrito Bros. They are lousy.

San Jose, Mid-October. A week with my superstraight brother. Object: avoid distraction, write piece. The scene is so bleak that I never even try to find out whether he owns a radio. The scene is so bleak I can't even dig the Mets.

Berkeley, Late October. Back to the world of distractions where everyone talks about music. My hosts are Greil Marcus, who runs the review section of Rolling Stone, and his wife, Jenny. I learn that opinion has shifted against the Beatles. Everyone is putting down Abbey Road. Strangely, I find that I no longer want to hear it. One evening I change my mind and put it on. It gives me a headache.

Surrounded by all those review albums, I find myself cherishing moments in Jenny's Volks with the radio on. Occasionally I go to FM, but I always return to KYA. I have always tended to listen to lyrics while driving: At home there's generally something else to do, but in the car, despite audio problems, the radio is it. But now I discover that I have never really listened to those lyrics before. I have judged them, registered them intellectually, even become excited over them, but I haven't felt them. This is not a profound observation, of course, but it sets me thinking. Assume that a song like "Suspicious Minds" is written by a professional songwriter with a certain gift for thematic calculation. He knows that performance and arrangement and melody sell records, not words. His job is not so much to write a coherent lyric as to come up with certain easily identified, salable phrases and situate them appropriately, so that people will be almost forced to go around humming, let us say, "Caught in a trap/ We can't get out." Even the more serious songwriters perpetuate the system. If they're good at what they do, their best phrases and their best music come together, while most of the average stuff is submerged in between. That is why the old complaints about song banality are irrelevant: People just identify; they don't analyze. But what happens when someone finds that the banal song situation is his life? He listens to every word. Suddenly all that waste verbiage becomes immensely powerful, almost by accident, and the power is real, only it resides in the perceiver rather than in what is perceived. And is that Art? The perceiver doesn't much care.

The songs that mean most to me in Berkeley don't quite fit into such a category, because the same process tends to elevate good songs as well as indifferent ones. I become obsessive about "Undun," by the Guess Who, and about "Take a Letter, Maria," that strange Billy Joe Royal/Sam Cooke song I first heard while drifting over the road in Colorado. The lyric is not only coherent but also almost complex, in the narrative tradition of country-western music, but the singer, it turns out, is a black man named R.B. Greaves, and the Herb Alpert horns were recorded in Muscle Shoals. The song is in the form of a monologue from a businessman (black capitalism triumphs again) to his secretary, Maria; the chorus, a letter she is supposed to compose, the verses, his conversational comment. The businessman has been working late every night to build a good-life for his rhymes-with-wife. One night he gets home a little early and finds her "in the arms of another man." He walks out forever, and in the final stanza he asks Maria to have dinner with him.

This record is a classic example of the levels on which a good song operates. Musically, it is an American hodgepodge, with its raceless singer and its Hollywood fluff arrangement recorded amid all that Alabama funk. And what is its audience? If top-forty radio is kid radio, who's gonna buy a song about a businessman who splits on his wife? And isn't the device of addressing the song to the secretary a little, well, arty, especially when she is transformed at the end from a device or at best a presence into a character in whom the narrator evinces personal interest? What's going on here? Why is this so complicated? And how does it all connect to the blatant male chauvinism of the song's basic assumption, which is that some asshole who devotes his life to his job instead of his woman--even if he does want a good-life for his rhymes-with-wife--can just walk out on her without a word of explanation when she does him wrong in return? And what does this have to do with my life? The answer, as I tool around in that little Volks, always seems to be the same: plenty.

Los Angeles, Early November. An attempted reconciliation with Ellen is combined with a joint interview with Mick Jagger. The interview is tense, but it is genial compared to the reconciliation. While we wait for Jagger, who is two hours late, Ellen puts on Abbey Road, which from her Colorado fastness she has grown to love. Damned if she isn't right--flawed but fine. Because the world is round it turns her on. Charlie Watts tells us he likes it too.

Detroit, Early November. The plan had been to travel on to Denver for the Stones, where Diane is saying good-bye to her relatives before moving to Guatemala. In the Warner Bros. promo pack I obtained in L.A. I note that the Kinks, who I have missed all over the country, will be at the Grande with Joe Cocker. Diane can't go but suggests I stay over an extra day and go with Sue. Well, the Grande is speed city and the Kinks thorazine valley, but Joe Cocker is Joe Cocker in all his spastic greatness, the ultimate turn-on. Hmm, yeah, wow. I stay with Sue for a week.

On the Road, Mid-November. Driving to Washington in a Volkswagen with three women activists. We get WCFL most of the way. "Wedding Bell Blues" comes on, another radio experience. I think Laura Nyro is a blowzy purveyor of bullshit sensuality. I think it is slightly shameful that intelligent people revere her. But as a composer of bullshit-meaningful songs for a great bullshit-meaningful group like the 5th Dimension, she's great, and I have learned to enjoy "Wedding Bell Blues." Two women in the car (not Sue) argue with me on the grounds that "WBB" implicitly defines woman in terms of her man. I will not bore you with the argument, but what it boils down to is this: The women are right, but it doesn't matter to me. There is some rock & roll & that can be understood as its creators intended it, more or less, but that's only half of it. What most excites me is a much richer phenomenon: the way that intention tends to fit into a larger and more complex pattern of art and politics and pleasure. "Wedding Bell Blues" is slick-robust, like Herb Alpert in Muscle Shoals, and so is the 5th Dimension, and so are the needs the song fulfills in its audience and even the desperate need to believe in something earthy out of which I imagine it was written by Laura Nyro herself. It's not quite real, but it's far from false, and that is very sad and very beautiful. Like most things, if you're in the mood.

Washington, Mid-November. Sitting on the cold grass there is a good song from John Hartford and "Give Peace a Chance" and Arlo Sings Woody and a lot of 1963 bullshit solidarity. Jimi Hendrix is supposed to show up, but I can't wait. I march to the Justice Department instead. Chuck, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck Berry, stop the trial, free Jerry.

New York, Late November. No music on the bus and most of my stuff is still in Colorado, but one artifact remains: my jukebox. Well, it's really Ellen's, but I have squatter's rights. Three immediate substitutions. Off: "Get It on Home," "Darling Be Home Soon," "Let's Spend the Night Together." On: "Take a Letter, Maria," "Undun," "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

Village Voice, Dec. 1969
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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