Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Man as Good as Janis

For the last five years, any rock performer worth his pretensions has written his own songs. Because rock has always been more personal than straight pop, it has bred more than its share of singer-writers right back to the time of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and (let us not forget) Paul Anka. But during the period in which it was dominated artistically by rhythm and blues, professional songwriters made a comparable contribution. In recent years, even those performers who began by using outside material, from Eric Burdon right on down to Tommy James, have taken to writing their own.

This is one more reflection of the influence of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, exemplars of a youth ambience in which self-expression has become almost compulsory. With very few exceptions (most notably British blues, where original material is a less rigid requirement) the music must above all appear "natural." Song interpretation has been relegated by both performers and audience to that phony adult world of nightclub theatricality which rock has been striving to destroy for 15 years. If a singer doesn't write his own songs, some confrere in his group does.

In the standard pattern, a debut album will usually include a few outside songs, mostly to demonstrate roots and affinities. The second album is likely to be totally original. Even though it would sometimes seem that the writing royalties provide their own inspiration, this has been a healthy trend. It has motivated many excellent performer-composers (Mick Jagger-Keith Richard, the various Byrds) and a smaller, more bizarre assortment of composer-performers (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman). But it has also inspired records that should never have been cut and songs that should never have been written. And it has done terrible things to talented, serious songwriters for whom performance is an impossibility.

Because of the usual prejudices about creative force, it has been easier for women to buck this situation. Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Janis Joplin have all done so. But with rock in its current flux, male interpreters have also begun to appear. Recently, three of them--Josť Feliciano, Joe cocker and the group called Three Dog Night--have released commercially successful albums. Unfortunately, their esthetic witness is mixed. Rock interpretation has a way to come.

It is an indication of how hopeless the future must appear to the nonperforming rock songwriter that most interpreters depend on songs which have already been made familiar by their composers. For reinterpreting a rock song, however safe it seems as a sales ploy, is a difficult task. The self-expression thing does have a real basis--composers take more naturally to their own songs than anyone else. What's more, rock songs are written with the studio in mind and even changed to meet its exigencies. A good rock song is more than a frame on which to hang a style. It is an organic entity, and each new version must be reconceived from the root.

Feliciano 10/23 (RCA Records LSP-4185) fails because Josť Feliciano, producer Rick Jarrard and (especially) arranger Al Capps refuse to understand this. In some respects, Feliciano resembles folk-based interpreter Richie Havens: both play acoustic guitar, sing in a modified blues style, compose some, and use a lot of super-familiar material. But while Havens's appeal is to the self-appointed rock elite, Feliciano has exploited his potential with the broader and even more lucrative pop audience. This album is aimed at such an audience.

As a result, its only unexceptionable cut is a clean rendition of "She's a Woman," a middle-period Beatles smash, forgotten in the subsequent deluge, which is ripe for reinterpretation. The arrangement, dominated by a flute and Feliciano's excellent guitar, never intrudes. Not so on Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster," sung astutely enough but ruined by the thrice-removed big-band riffs Capps has added. The rest is worse--two indifferent Bee Gees songs, a superfluous "Windmills of Your Minds," etc. Feliciano seems to feel that enough arbitrary melismatic interjections will make anything sound soulful. He almost ruins "Hey Jude," which isn't easy, and butchers Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets," to which his style is completely inappropriate.

A more sensitive approach to interpretation is exemplified by Three Dog Night. On the group's first album, producer Gabriel Mekler unveiled an unprecedented concept: three excellent rock voices, named only in small print on the label, alternated on material which could be characterized for the most part as unjustly neglected. None of the singers wrote, the supporting musicians were anonymous and, with one exception, production and arrangement ranged from tasteful to superb. Taken all together, it was a brilliant revamping of the produced groups of rock's early days, applied to serious songs instead of honest schlock.

The final proof of the concept was its success: Three Dog Night's version of Nilsson's "One" reached the top of the trade charts. Unlike many produced groups, this one could execute live. Soon the three singers--Cory Wells, Danny Hutton and Chuck Negron--were relatively familiar figures, and their four back-up musicians had coalesced into a self-conscious unit.

The group's second album, Suitable for Framing (Dunhill DS 50058), suffers for all these reasons. The material is imaginative, but the familiar songs are less interesting--the embarrassing imitation of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" on the first album is matched by an embarrassing imitation of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" on this one, and songs like "Feelin' Alright?" and "Eli's Coming" are much inferior to the originals--and the others have been justly neglected (exception: "Circle for a Landing").

Danny Hutton has contributed a weak song of his own, drummer Floyd Sneed is featured on an instrumental waste cut, and the record is one song shorter than the first (time: 28:01). Its largest failing, however, is the obvious one: it is devoid of identity. Like its predecessor, this album is the expression of a producer. The singers get in the way because they are only half visible: we know only that they like rock and pray for soul. Whether they'll get it remains at best an open question.

There are no such misgivings in the case of Joe Cocker, the English shouter whose first LP, With a Little Help From My Friends (A&M SP 4182), is the major triumph of rock interpretation thus far. Cocker's material leans to the conventional--he sings two Dylan songs, for instance--but his conception and performance, as well as Denny Cordell's production, are always audacious. His transformation of "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "A Little Help From My Friends" from light-hearted ditties into wails of human need succeeds perfectly, and his version of "Feelin' Alright" is not only better than Three Dog Night's but better than the original, by Stevie Winwood and Traffic.

If that means Cocker is the best singer in England, well--overlook Mick Jagger and it's possible, even likely. His voice is very strong, influenced by Ray Charles, and he has no inhibitions about using it. All of his inhibitions came before the fact, in the immense care that went into each track. (Reportedly, Cocker recorded 10 versions of "I Shall Be Released" before arriving at the definitive synthesis that closes the album.) Cocker's affection for rock is uniquely personalized. He is gruff and vulgar, perhaps a touch too self-involved, but his steady strength rectifies his excesses. He is the best of the male rock interpreters, as good in his way as Janis Joplin is in hers.

He and his pianist, Chris Stainton, wrote three of the songs on this album. Next time they plan to do more.

New York Times, Aug. 17, 1969