Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The 18th (or 19th) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll

Reality Used to Be a Friend of Ours

An unprecedented 300 voters made the 18th or 19th Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll the most colossal ever. So even though Nirvana's Nevermind finished one shy of an almost unprecedented 1700 points, Seattle's reluctant teen spirits, whose 1989 Sub Pop debut Bleach was actually plucked from the Amerindie swamp by three Pazz & Jop respondents (Jem Aswad, Pat Blashill, and Jim Maylo, we salute you), aren't anything like the biggest winner in poll history. Proportionally, many albums--from London Calling and Born in the U.S.A. to Sign "O" the Times and, hell, Never Mind the Bollocks--have excited more sweeping support. But that was earlier in the never-ending story of rock fragmentation. Since 1984, only Sign "O" the Times has posted heftier numbers. Only in 1983, the year of Thriller, "Billie Jean," and "Beat It," has any artist scored an album-single-video hat trick. And nobody but nobody has ever won by a wider margin--although runners-up rarely amass less than 70 per cent of a winner's points, Public Enemy got 54 per cent. Nor does the timing of Nirvana's late-year surge explain the size of the victory. Come on--this is a classic critics' band. As a modest pop surprise they might have scored a modest victory, like De La Soul in 1990. Instead their multiplatinum takeover constituted the first full-scale public validation of the Amerindie values--the noise, the toons, the 'tude--the radder half of the electorate came up on. Poof, they're a landslide.

In early September, Nirvana entered my major/indie-neutral world--where David Geffen's DGC label has more credibility than RCA or Relativity, as much as Virgin or SST, and less than Sire or Shanachie--as the latest scruffy rumor. Although a single play serves to peg most well-buzzed postindie bands as interesting, spotty, generic, or worse, Nevermind stood out from the first sarcastically magnificent bars of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Strong throughout, I reported. But I didn't hear a distinct sound--just distinct songs/hooks/riffs, which the way "alternative" aesthetics go is aces in a band loud enough to rouse the pissed and vex the complacent. Just like a million teenagers, I listened compulsively only after Nirvana sandbagged the sisyphean Michael Jackson as the hit of a dicey Christmas and then overwhelmed our poll--at which point what I'd taken for Amerindie pop-by-accident emerged as an inspired, if accidental, synthesis.

In varying sonic and philosophic proportions, Nirvana recalls an honor roll of bands who've rooled our charts while barely grazing Billboard's: Flipper, the Pixies, their fans and labelmates Sonic Youth, and especially those standard-bearers of the eternally unmarketable "Minneapolis sound," Husker Du and the Replacements. Hundreds of scruffy rumors--Dinosaur Jr. (whose confused major-label debut finished 37th after two near-misses on SST), Volcano Suns, the Fluid, Soul Asylum, Superchunk, Mudhoney, Run Westy Run, Das Damen, and onward to China--have put out thousands of albums that don't come within ass-sniffing distance of this one. But like the Beastie Boys, whose rap slapstick made them the Nirvana of an earlier pop moment, all the above-named Pazz & Jop heroes have topped Nevermind by at least a hair: with Album: Generic Flipper and Bossanova (most would say Doolittle) and Sister and Daydream Nation and New Day Rising and Candy Apple Grey and Let It Be and Licensed To Ill.

You'll note that except for Licensed To Ill, which may outsell Nevermind yet (the septuple platinum bandied about is "projected," as bizzers say), the sole nonindie releases in this list are Candy Apple Grey, Husker Du's fifth (and next-to-last) album, and the most recent, Bossanova. Not that any of them would have gone ballistic on a major (though I wished we'd watched Let It Be try). But Nirvana reflects an adjustment in the way the majors exploit their indie farm teams--instead of waiting until some kid hits 70 home runs, the bosses are trying to snag the comers on the way up. As Chief Operating Poobah Joe Levy pointed out to me shortly after the results were in, the Replacements and Husker Du and Sonic Youth were already world-weary by the time they seized the main chance. Nirvana aren't--not if you allow for their anomie addiction--and Nevermind is where they shot their wad. Geffen picked them just as they were getting ripe, and you can bet their next album, assuming it materializes, won't jam as hard as this one. Like the Beasties in 1986, they're still kids, which helps kids relate to them--and also appeals to grownup critics, whose yearning for the authentic often overwhelms even their weakness for the specific.

Artistically, what distinguishes all this historic Amerindie vinyl is artiness first of all: Flipper's art-damaged minimalism, the Pixies' art-school surrealism, the Beasties' downtown street cred, Sonic Youth's downtown tunings, Husker Du's virtuosic barrage, Paul Westerberg's songs and sound and sense and unsense. But I prefer to say that what distinguishes them is their distinctiveness: the stylistic particularity aesthetes savor so. Nirvana's breakthrough achieves a generalization level that in a perverse way reminds me of such transrepellent new rich as Nelson and Michael Bolton. In terms of its own tradition, this is a band without qualities. So are many scruffy rumors, of course--without the hook riffs, or Kurt Cobain's power yowl, or the motorvation of their ultimate drummer, Dan Grohl. And it's worth noting that many older pop folk--the radio programmers who blackballed "Smells Like Teen Spirit," for instance--find Nirvana's tradition as offensive per se as good bohemians find Nelson's glamourpuss homilies. I love our heroes' noise and toons and 'tude. But from their incomprehensible lyrics--and before you blame the mall rats for not paying attention, try and make out a third of them yourself--to their covertly eclectic three-chord punk/pop/metal, their only signature is Kurt's voiceprint. Thank God he's got more soul than Michael Bolton.

The Nirvana phenomenon is Amerindie's pop culmination, dwarfing such overreported critical-commercial convergences as Faith No More's asshole-rock or Soundgarden's Zep worship, which was supposed to turn Seattle into rock 'n' roll heaven two-three years ago and instead finished 41st and 42nd in our poll on two A&M releases that have yet to go that high in Billboard. Nor is there all that much parallel with perennial poll faves R.E.M., who have now sold three million copies of the third-ranked Out of Time after building their audience the old-fashioned way--gradually. Critics and clubrats may view Nevermind as an Amerindie success story, sellout, or whatever. But as far as bizzers and buyers are concerned, it's simply the hype of the season, another Dangerous or Lose Your Illusion or Niggaz4life or Unforgettable or To the Extreme rather than another Out of Time--or Let It Be. Sometimes these hypes are meticulously orchestrated, like Michael J.'s (which finished a hype-deafened 52nd while ranking in singles and videos) or Axl R.'s (11th and 20th). But sometimes they take the wise guys by surprise. Sure Elektra and SBK had fond hopes for Natalie Cole (tied for 96th) and Vanilla Ice (a 1990 release, how could you ask), but nobody figured they'd pay out on such a scale. Except with a presold superstar and not always then, bizzers never figure that. They just tell themselves something will turn up.

So though I've barely scratched the surface of Nirvana's music, and remain fascinated by what their success says or doesn't say about adolescent alienation, sheeplike spectatorism, etc., my deepest insight into the band came from the Times business reporter who--after revealing that Nevermind had been, wink wink, promoted--added an odd little fact: "DGC initially risked only about $550,000 on the group." A keen apercu, slyly voiced. The "only" kills me every time, and that mischievous "initially" adds ambiguity--are DGC's followup investments literally "risk"-y, or is "risk" just capitalist jargon for "spend"? Taking those septuple-platinum projections without salt, DGC will bring in $50 million on its first Nirvana album, a tidy 9000 per cent return. And they say there no magic left in the music business!

I cite these absurd numbers not to illustrate bohemia's continuing market function, or to pump/prick Nirvana's honor, significance, or aesthetic achievement, but as a poem about hype. Weird as it is to imagine an "alternative" band grossing 50 mill, which would keep 500 scruffy rumors in food and drugs for a year, it's weirder still to conceive $550,000 as "only." For something like three years, after all, this nation and this planet have suffered through what is called a "recession." A scarier word might seem appropriate by now, but no, another Times business reporter predicts the long-promised upturn by summer, and since there'll be some dismal presidential campaign on by then, he could be right. Whether it will last is another question. Americans are coping with the devastations of a decade in which the rich stole $500 billion--that's 1000 Neverminds, rock and rollers--from ordinary citizens in FDIC guarantees and bullshit loans alone, in which Pentagon greedheads cruelly inflated the national debt and then destroyed their new death machines in a cruel, entertaining war. One consequence of this massive flim-flam is the inexorable shrinkage of ordinary citizens' leisure time and/or discretionary dollars. So far the music business seems to have survived this structural threat, unless you happen to be a laid-off worker or dropped act. But the future doesn't look bright--and I'm speaking as someone whose capacity for optimism in this space has amused bohos and Marxists for years.

None of the warning signs is conclusive, and some are so obvious they bore know-it-alls who should know better. There's consumer resistance to exorbitant CD prices, which has lately inspired much ban-home-taping-style blather about controlling the brazen traffic in used product. (Recycle, recycle, it ain't illegal yet.) There's the inevitable exhaustion of the catalogues from which labels now reap so much surplus value. (The boxed-set scam has gotten so out of hand that in 1991 our 10 reissue titles, which comprised 24 CDs the year before, were up to 50, partly because we decided not to penalize Rhino for making the 15 volumes of its late-soul collection available separately when you have to buy all nine Stax-Volts at once. This can't go on.) There's the increasing dependence on intellectual property rights--sponsorships, advertising jingles, atmospheric snatches in movies and TV shows, rationalized and hence oversimplified sampling, SST crushed by Island for taking U2's name in vain. (The thought police have yet to recall my Negativland CD, which as proof against court orders I'm home-taping like crazy.) There's the death of Rough Trade; the fiscal ills not just of SST but of Enigma, Twin/Tone, and--until its recent windfall--Sub Pop; and Tower's purchase of its own indie distributor, which at best will cost the others a major account. (How autonomous are little labels when they can't survive without giant retailers? Youth--or at least K Records--wants to know.)

But though none of this is good, all of it is bizness as usual--the short-sighted ineptitude and dumb cupidity rock and roll has been surviving for years. What's really got me down is stuff that looks suspiciously like '80s-a-go-go five years late, after sensible capitalists have moved on to subtler crimes against the polity. Corporate takeovers, for instance--the purchase of behemoths like Columbia or MCA or major indies like Island or Geffen at prices that guarantee crippling profit demands and/or debt service. Often as a corollary--Richard Branson is said to have overbid on the Stones and Janet J. primarily to increase Virgin's market value--mammoth advances to cynosures and dinosaurs have become the rule, and just as you'll soon pay ticket prices you can't afford at Yankee Stadium so you can watch Danny Tartabull on television (if you get cable), you'll soon pay for Tommy Mottola's faith in his Mariah by forking over more extra bucks for CDs that cost the companies the same as cassettes (if they still make them). This in turn assures endless hypes of the season, inordinate future spending (by which I mean risking) on the promotion not just of Aerosmith and Madonna, not just of Prince and Bruce and U2 and the like, but of, who knows, Phil Collins, Elton John, Anita Baker, Keith Sweat, Depeche Mode, Poison, Mannheim Steamroller--anybody whose smart manager can convert a track record into visions of sugarplums. Which in turn assures parsimonious investments in guess what. That's right--music.

Just as my optimism amuses my dour contemporaries, I'm always amused by the optimism of the young seekers who dismiss all cavils about clubland's scruffy rumors with the same rhetorical question: "Where's the new music supposed to come from, then?" The assumption being not just that new music is the special province of young, English-speaking white people with funny hairdos, but that new music is a fact of nature, as ineluctable as the tides. To me the ozone layer seems a richer analogy. It's the old substructure/superstructure metaphor--the music (superstructure) can affect the cultural economy/ecology (substructure), but is finally dependent on it. When money shifts or dries up, when leisure is imperiled, the music will probably change, though not in a precisely or predictably corresponding way. It may even dry up itself--all bets are off. So while I never boast about my crystal ball, I have less confidence than usual in poll-based prognostications. I see more blips than trends, and even the trends seem subject to forces beyond the control of such evanescent variables as critical judgment and public taste.

The most striking oddities of this year's Pazz & Jop are the poor showing of female artists, by which I mean solo lead voices, and the apparent resurgence of indie labels, by which I mean nondance outfits without major-label distribution or established pop outreach. There were three women on the album chart (Bonnie Raitt was high at 24, with younger postfolkies Sam Phillips and Kirsty MacColl below) and a pitiful two on the singles list, down from six and 11. The five indie albums in the top 40 (including the first import ever to make the top 10, Curse of the Mekons) are the most since Amerindie's salad days (six in '85 and '86), and the three indie-rock singles in our top 25 the most since "O Superman!," "Homosapien," and "Ceremony" in 1981 and the first time even one has placed since Ciccone Youth's "Into the Groovy" in 1986. Also notable were the falloff in the dance music that bum-rushed 11 singles onto our chart in 1990 (of this year's six dance-pop smashes, only one, Crystal Waters's "Gypsy Woman," broke out of the clubs), the ever-increasing congruences between the video and single charts, and the highest-ranking metal album ever. Unlike Chuck Eddy, whose Stairway to Hell provoked much cranky critcrit approbation by ranking Jimmy Castor and Teena Marie in a top 10 for the metal ages, I don't think the Sex Pistols or Husker Du count. Metallica definitely do.

Rock and roll has proven a recalcitrantly male chauvinist genre (see the comments section headed "Lose Your Illusion I"), and no woman has topped this poll since Joni Mitchell in 1974. Women's showings haven't just varied, however--they've fluctuated wildly, and not with the moon (or the economy: never bought the saw that in times of trouble we gravitate to women singers because we miss our mamas). In 1988, in 1989, and again in 1990, women put six or seven records in the top 40 and one or two in the top 10. But before you mourn thwarted progress and free-associate to sex criminals with expensive lawyers, note that way back in 1981 there were 10 in the top 40 and way back in 1984 there were six in the top 20--and then tally up the two intervening years, when a miserable six combined made the top 40 and zero the top 20. As some jerk is forever pointing out, years are arbitrary divisions. I like to think women will eventually get more respect in pop music. But the background presence of female instrumentalists in such bands as My Bloody Valentine, the Pixies, 47th-place Eleventh Dream Day, EP-charting Blake Babies, and singles-charting Unrest may not be as epochal as Ann Powers hopes (remember Sara Lee? how 'bout Tina Weymouth? Susie Honeyman?), and Scrawl and Babes in Toyland, the two all-woman bands on our blipping EP chart, promise considerably less than the Slits and the Raincoats. It'll get better for sure. How much, how permanently, and how fast we can't tell.

The indie surge is more significant, though not the way partisans hope. Only one of the albums is by a newish or youngish artist--with their fifth release, American Music Club follows in the path of somewhat fresher Amerindie picks-to-click Yo La Tengo in 1990 and Galaxie 500 in 1989. The others--the Mekons, John Prine, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and ex-Blaster Dave Alvin--have sold their souls to the majors and lived to say goodbye, and only the oldest, 1971 new-Dylan pick-to-click Prine, is a Pazz & Jop rookie. Except for the Mekons, these artists record for (and in Prine's case comprise) labels modeled on the folk-oriented pre-Amerindie Amerindies Rounder and Alligator, geared to discerning adults rather than the disaffected young. Their capitalism is quietly marginal, rather unlike the rhetorical rebellion of new wave entrepreneurs who've been signing distribution deals since Slash joined Warners. In a year when six of the eight Pazz & Jop newcomers in our top 15--Sonny Sharrock, My Bloody Valentine, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ice-T, Matthew Sweet, and last but most Nirvana--didn't do it with debuts (Chris Whitley and P.M. Dawn were the rookies), the indies' farm-system function is self-evident. Here's hoping SST, or Alias, or at least Rhino turns into the HighTone or Shanachie of aging "alternative" rockers.

On the single and of course EP charts, we have more traditional indie action, in EPs because the majors don't mess with them, in singles because . . . well, we'll see. Primed just slightly by Joe Levy's habit of taping 45-rpm discoveries for critic friends (he voted for Nirvana's "Sliver" last year), vinyl revanchism is part of the story--where in this era a single's place is in the air rather than on your shelves, the tiny, stubborn seven-inch movement typified by Unrest's/K Records' fuck-crazy "Yes She Is My Skinhead Girl" is nothing less than rhetorically rebellious commodity fetishism, and possibly something more. Together with Negativland, which has followed John Prine into DIYland after a sad dispute with SST over who pays for their now-banned single's supposed copyright infringements, and Pavement, whose forthcoming Matador debut is a certain Amerindie pick-to-click for 1992 (the demo tape finished 56th), it wants to promise that there will always be enough money and/or passion around to assure some sort of hearing to the portion of unmarketable music that manages to survive its gauntlet of cliquish subjectivity.

Because dancers are pop's proudest trendhoppers, this was a transitional year for them. The house/rap/pop syntheses of 1990 were already pure pop by 1991--even the mixmaster-conceived C + C Music Factory broke on the radio, while industrial, techno, rave, and dancehall rocked the discos, which will certainly launch new crossovers in 1992. The video/single overlap (only Metallica's "The Unforgiven" didn't also chart as a single after five videos scored on their own last year) says less about videos than about singles--and CHR, which no longer programs as hip a pop mix as MTV. As for metal, that's generational, and there'll be more. Even critics who aren't full-fledged fans, as many are, harbor vestigial hankerings for the stuff if they grew up on '70s AOR. And though maybe us graybeards should educate ourselves, I think it's like Balkan girl groups--internationalist/cross-generational imperative or no, I'd be a doofus to try and like everything. I still believe a fondness for metal is cousin to a fondness for the symphony, a relationship that honors neither, and enjoy it mostly as "hard rock," which wasn't always a metal-aligned category. Thus I prefer the kneejerk sexism of GN'R I to the asshole existentialism of GN'R II and took James Hetfield out of his misery inside of five plays--not only was life too short, I could feel it getting shorter with every song. I should also mention that I haven't finished Stairway to Hell after eight months of effort--my choice for most overlooked rockbook of the year is Donna Gaines's burnout ethnography Teenage Wasteland.

Another generalization worth drawing is that for all the brouhaha over Ice Cube (whose points-to-voters ratio makes him a shoo-in for cult artist of the year), rap is now clearly a fixture of the rockcrit mix. Let the old farts who never vote for anybody who isn't an elder or a respecter of same retire, and stop the young farts who never vote for anybody outside their bubble from going pro. But note that of the 127 respondents who didn't name a single rap album, including many genuine specialists (folk/worldbeat/dance/metal/whatever aficionados) and more than a few early rap fans, 43 listed a rap single (and of the 17 who named only P.M. Dawn, 10 listed somebody else's rap single). My own view of the new punk is that nice guys finished last this year. Daisy-age from A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the boombastic Dream Warriors, and especially Queen Latifah (three mentions) lacked the conviction of what I'll call hybrid hard: Ice-T, Cypress Hill, Naughty by Nature and Yo-Yo (tied for 54th), and the felonious Slick Rick (whose album is strange, and not in any way you'd expect). The voters, however, picked a little of this and a little of that; tag the small tolerance for Five Percenters signaled by Brand Nubian's 67th place and Poor Righteous Teachers' one mention as the only ideological trend, and praise Allah that 79th-ranked N.W.A proved a fad.

The rest of the poll is self-explanatory with a helping of deja vu--Seal is Terence Trent D'Arby only not as good, Massive Attack is Soul II Soul only not as good, Rumour and Sigh is Amnesia only not as good, The Bootleg Series is Biograph combined with The Basement Tapes only nowhere near as good, Storyville is Robbie Robertson only worse, Van Morrison is eternal. Sonny Sharrock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore and John Prine and Ice-T got their belated props. Matthew Sweet's guitarists staged a triumphant return. The Pixies, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg, A Tribe Called Quest, the great Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dave Alvin, Robyn Hitchcock, and Marshall Crenshaw made records marginally more or less worthy than their last charting effort. Chris Whitley was a trad wet dream. Unlikely rap groups and British posers came up with singles they believe they can top and we don't. De La Soul didn't fall off the chart; Prince almost fell off the chart; Elvis C. did fall off the chart; Sting and J.C. Mellencamp fell off the edge of the earth. (That would be 88th and 99th, respectively; 41-50 went Graham Fucking Parker, Soundgarden, Son of Bazerk, Costello, Pooh Sticks, Robert Ward, Eleventh Dream Day, Julian Cope, Aaron Neville, La's.)

As always, the critics supported high craft, from the be-here-now syntheses of Nirvana and Public Enemy and R.E.M. to such retronuevo variations as Phillips's jazz-tinged electrofolk and Alvin's blues-rock electrofolk and MacColl's new wave electrofolk. But neither PE nor R.E.M.--nor such striking but less than unprecedented rookies as Sweet and Sharrock--inspired comments worth sharing. In fact, the only also-rans whose music seemed new enough to cry out for description and explanation were fifth-place P.M. Dawn and 14th-place My Bloody Valentine, and significantly, both were far from any kind of hard, including hard rock along the GN'R/Nirvana model. P.M. Dawn loves rap the way the original rappers loved disco--as sonic source and kinetic playground. They're from rap but not of it, intertwined with the feminine principle even though they mean to escape a reality they conceive as "she," and rappers may never forgive them for it. On both the Loveless album and the underpublicized, tied-for-seventh Tremolo EP, My Bloody Valentine brings downtown minimalism and its schlocky new age offspring to rock if not rock and roll. Simultaneously ambient and abrasive, its oceanic discord is mysticism that computes in a stressed-to-the-max world. Although others found more compatible spiritual havens in U2, Chris Whitley, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, to me even Gilmore seemed corny by comparison.

In short, the most suggestive musicians of the year were escapist and proud--with some reason, they hate the reality that used to be a friend of theirs, and they're coping with a visionary audacity that signifies. Personally, I think Nevermind is more fun and possibly more realistic than Loveless if not Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross, and when art is no fun anymore I'm getting out. But the dubious equation of loud/fast/smart with tough-minded activism/realism--a casual (and ultimately insupportable) assumption that shores up a lot of Amerindie's (and my) musical pleasure--is absurd on the face of it in this year of dazed here-we-are-now-entertain-us. With all respect to PE and LKJ, the political voices on our chart have shrunk in both number and spirit. Beyond a few protests, part-of-the-problem Ice Cube and searching-for-a-solution Ice-T, red- diaper baby Kirsty MacColl and red-flag waver Billy Bragg, fucked-up Mekons and God-fearing Sam Phillips all carom from rage to confusion to defeat to utter hopelessness. Almost like--can it be?--Nirvana. Talk about no future.

Really, who out there believes our reluctant teen spirits have the stuff to survive not underground obscurity--there are models for that--but hype-of-the-season megasuccess? More honest than that poor schmuck Vanilla Ice, which should count for something, but less ambitious, which counts for plenty whether it should or not, they're certainly nothing to hang your hopes on. And though I enjoy the vulgar glee of the post-"alternative" skeptics who can't wait for the talented mall rats Nirvana will inspire to go for the gold with scruffy guitars, I don't put much stock in that scenario either. Rich-and-famous is a rock paradigm, I accept that, but the democrat in me has never much liked it. And as we watch the whole rich-and-famous nexus--the market warfare now making the world safe for Islamic fundamentalism, belts tightened to zero, and of course freedom--drain the life not just from rock and roll but from the world as we know it, I don't look forward to watching Mitsubishi-backed exburnouts the Maul--three guys and a gurl who deciphered or misprised every lyric on Nevermind and went on from there--turn into the hype of Christmas 1995. The same goes for the "alternative" escape-rock/pop-rap synthesis of End of the Night, which formed after an Ian Curtis lip-synch contest.

It's worth remembering that in the early years of what was called the Great Depression record sales did literally dry up--volume on a typical hit plummeted almost 900 per cent, from 350,000 to 40,000. It won't happen again on so grand a scale--the information age, bread and circuses, and so forth. But that doesn't mean the bizness isn't setting itself up for a fall. Commercial still means something like popular, and indie insularity is the rock equivalent of left sectarianism, but if I have to choose between people who are in it for money and people who are in it for love (or righteousness, or pride, or even vanity), I know where I'll stand. The only hope I'll permit myself in this bleak season is that it never comes down to that.

Village Voice, Mar. 3, 1992


1990 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1992