Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

A Critics' Band--And How

The Brisbane, Australia-generated and usually -based Go-Betweens were often slotted as a critics' band. This means that throughout their two-stage career--the first phase 1978-1990, then a decade of solo work with occasional reunions by principals Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, then a surprisingly, even unprecedentedly vital reunion period that launched with the 2000 album The Friends of Rachel Worth and ended with McLennan's sudden cardiac-arrest death at 48 on May 6, 2006--their reception by music journalists seemed to skeptics out of proportion with their medium-level though sustaining record sales and gig crowds. And indeed, it's not as if their music jumps out at you--you register its calm before its melodicism sinks in, and you'd call the thoughtful, sometimes slightly gnomic lyrics subtle before you'd call them witty, which in their dry way they often are.

But as Forster--whose best solo album, The Evangelist, surfaced two years after McLennan's death--now points out, the Go-Betweens were a critics band in another way. Ever since coming together as undergraduate aesthetes, they were mad dissectors of movies, fiction, and anything else that struck their fancy, and McLennan, a subscriber to The New York Review of Books at the time he died, did in fact publish film criticism when the band was young. So when a new Australian magazine called The Monthly asked Forster to be its music critic in 2005, he decided to give it a shot. If they didn't like his first piece, its subject the first Antony and the Johnsons album, well, nothing ventured nothing gained.

They did, and so did lots of other people in Australia. In fact, on October 25, 2006, with barely a year of published work on the table, he was awarded Australia's Pascall Prize for criticism, which comes with a lot of prestige and a $15,000 check. Former Go-Betweens bassist Robert Vickers, a Brisbane native who now works as a publicist in New York, tells me this occasioned considerable backbiting among his fellow Australian arts journalists, and you can see why--celebrity interlopers are not popular in our little community, and artists rarely command the detachment that marks most good criticism. A few times when we were doing year-end roundups or hot-for-spring lists or some such nonsense at the Voice, one editor or another but always a front-of-the-book person would get the bright idea of letting artists do the picking instead of boring/elitist/etc. critics. This would invariably result in embarrassing rounds of back-patting and special pleading--even the editors didn't suggest it two years in a row. On the other hand, hotshots from nowhere rarely excite unanimous approval in our little community either.

Only problem is, Forster turns out to be an absolutely top-notch critic. You can find his stuff online--The Monthly bowed to the forces of history (or whatever it is) and stopped embargoing a few months ago. But that may not be the best way to absorb his literary voice. In mid 2008, I read a few photocopied essays to prepare for a (not yet published) Believer interview with Forster by myself and my wife, Carola Dibbell. I thought they showed talent. But I wasn't prepared for the cumulative effect of The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, the Australia-only collection Forster published late last year.

Wince wince--why's he getting to publish a collection of critical essays? No doubt being "famous" helps, though I suspect being famous in Australia helps a lot more--embattled colonial cultures go out of their way to support their own. Anyway, as a connoisseur of the form I'm here to tell you that this is a damn good collection of critical essays. I agree with Forster's judgments no more than half the time and probably less--he's fonder than I would have thought of various folkies, and, in a contrarian/revisionist trend I have no use for, champions such ignored or half-forgotten MOR heroes as Glen Campbell, Neil Diamond, and Nana Mouskouri. Only he's never in the least contrarian about it, because his method is always to appreciatively describe the work at hand. The voice is knowledgeable without being even a little full of itself, and radiates a musician's kindness to other musicians without letting failed efforts off the hook. The insights into the recording process are sharp without being inside, and the Australia-specific stuff, usually about artists I've barely heard or never heard of, is consistently fascinating. His criticism is kind of like his music. He's no hotshot--modest confidence is his m.o.

The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll will likely never be published in the U.S., in part because it can be purchased online by Go-Betweens nuts (at a slight premium, of course). You could probably reassemble it online. Me, I loved having it in my hands in bed at night.

One more piece of gossip from Vickers. They're building a big new bridge in Brisbane, and they're going to call it the Go Betweens Bridge. This is obviously an apposite name for a bridge, but of course, the backbiters don't like it one little bit. Naming a bridge for a rock band! Not even a commercially successful one! And not only that, a band with a rock critic in it!

The AC/DC Bridge. Now there's a dream project.


By Gina on March 2, 2010 12:37 PM

Thanks for this, Bob. In October, I visited Australia for the first time; to prepare I uploaded the compleat Go Betweens catalog on my ipod which I played most of the time I was there. It was perfect in that setting and brought me back to those years, but minus the bitterness. It makes me so happy to know about that bridge in Brisbane; and that Forster's work is being published.

By Scott Lemieux on March 3, 2010 5:41 PM

I'm very glad that Forster is a successful critic as well and am looking forward to reading hi stuff. Seeing the Go Betweens at Southpaw on their last tour is one of my favorite memories of the aughts . . .

By Adam on March 24, 2010 8:15 AM

I'm curious what you mean when you suggest that most good criticism is marked by detachment. I thought your own criticism has always, quite unabashedly, been about personal pleasure, or the lack thereof - certainly a mark of attachment, yes? Can you clarify what you mean by detachment? Are you suggesting that artist-critics suffer from leniency towards their fellow artists?

By Robert Christgau on March 24, 2010 1:36 PM

To answer Adam briefly, without going into the interesting question of how critical detachment is a dandy means of discovering and broadening, pleasure, I have two problems with artists' critical detachment. The first is indeed mutual back-patting--the tendency of artists to praise their artist friends. Happens all the time--they're shameless. The second is that, in my experience, artists tend to be especially sympathetic to artists who are finding real or provisional solutions to formal problems they've been addressing in their own work, even though those solution may not be of much interest to nonspecialists. My painter friend and mentor Bob Stanley turned me on to many artists I would never have thought twice about--Matta and Poussin come to mind. But a decade or so into our relationship I noticed that sometimes he would send me off to gallery shows that I found uninteresting even though I could see why he was fascinated. And just to make sure I don't create the wrong impression, let me say that I can think of many musicians who write both eloquently and insightfully about music--Peter Stampfel and Richard Hell come to mind, I picked a David Byrne blog entry the year I edited Da Capo's Best Music Writing, and the music writing in Bob Dylan's Chronicles is some of the best of the '00s. But I'm not sure I'd trust any of these guys with the kind of monthly column Forster brings off so well.

Articles, Mar. 1, 2010

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