Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Ain't That a Shame

For six years I've taught a required popular music history course to would-be music professionals in NYU's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, and over that brief span I've noticed something other teachers report as well: beyond Elvis Presley, who's not God himself anymore, musically knowledgeable college students are no longer sure what such '50s giants as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis sound like. Maybe if you play "Roll Over Beethoven" they'll know the title and connect the dots. But "Promised Land"? "Maybellene"? Who's that dude?

What makes this at all surprising is that the periodization and documentation of pop history has become a social fact. Pop music is still understood to have changed utterly around 1955, so that everything before "rock" is Other and everything after is ingrained by pious documentaries and crass countdown shows. Conceivably 50 years are simply too many, and in another decade the Beatles will suffer the same fate--or at least the Stones, Aretha, the Dead. But my guess is that the '60s will keep seeming foundational while the '50s keep fading into history, and in pursuit of that surmise I thought I'd see how the historicization was going via four 21st-century books: Bruce Pegg's 2002 Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry, Rick Coleman's 2006 Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll, David Kirby's 2009 Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll, and Joe Bonomo's 2009 Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found.

I'd like to tell you these books are worth your time, but the only one that comes close is Blue Monday, primarily because Domino, who had more hits than the other three combined, has never had a biography. But for all its ace info, its analysis is a three-card flush. The Berry bio too is thoroughly researched, but not thoroughly enough, and the news that its stylistically challenged author was once "the Director of the Writing Center at Colgate University" offers a disheartening glimpse of American higher education. Kirby's Little Richard meditation is more skillful as prose, more willful as thought. And Bonomo's Jerry Lee Lewis divagation has but a single virtue: its focus on Lewis's 1964-recorded Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, a fan favorite I'd missed. At 37 minutes, it is definitely worth your time.

Domino excepted, it's not as if there are no good books on these guys. Published in 1982, Nick Tosches's Hellfire proved a major pick-me-up when I treated myself to a reread: a bio with attitude that says more about Jerry Lee Lewis in its first five pages than Bonomo's whole book, and those pages end in 1937. Published in 1987, Chuck Berry: The Autobiography is the great fruit of the second half of Berry's long life, a laboriously crafted, eloquently gauche tribute to the unreliability of the signifier that is more forthcoming about Berry's sex life than Pegg's book, which cites Berry's weakness for women as a tragic flaw. Published in 1984, The Life and Times of Little Richard, as told to and stitched together by the invaluable freelance music scholar Charles White, isn't, as David Kirby hyperbolizes-as-usual, the best imaginable life-account of the man with his name on "Tutti Frutti." But don't miss Richard's three-way with Buddy Holly.

Unfortunately, all these good books are more than 20 years old, and all are relatively short on the facts Coleman's Domino bio and Pegg's Berry provide in abundance. In the historicization game, facts help. Bummed by the new guys' clumsy craft and narrow perspectives, I revisited two early texts that laid the foundations of our rock and roll knowledge: the late Charlie Gillett's The Sound of the City, still solid after 40 years, and the relevant chapters in 1976's then-definitive Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, which in some cases I'd never looked at and in Chuck Berry's case I'd written. This was a relief--old-time rock critics Jim Miller, Peter Guralnick, Langdon Winner, and the late Robert Palmer write with far more grace than Coleman, Pegg, or Bonomo, and all are lifted by a vision of how rock and roll made a better world. But by now this vision seems simplistic, and its biographical underpinnings are sketchy. In an extreme instance, Gillett loves Berry's piano man but doesn't know his name: Johnnie Johnson, who as Pegg explains in excessive detail is now a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

It would be nice if some obsessive could shape a mass of fresh and vintage facts with some sort of updated master theory. No need to buy the theory as long as the insights it affords don't require too many omissions and distortions. There was even an example in 1995: Robert Palmer's avant-primitivist Rock & Roll: An Unruly History. But Palmer doesn't cover nearly enough ground for a general overview, and my guess is that no one else will either unless an academic to be named later comes up with a textbook better than Reebee Garafalo's Rockin' Out (which pushes some politics, give it that). What does seem theoretically possible is a biography with the ambition of Gary Giddins's Bing Crosby, which as a bonus reconceives pop music in the swing era, or Terry Teachout's Louis Armstrong (Pops), which for all its wrongheadedness does suggest a story about what Teachout thinks jazz should and shouldn't be--or even the first half of Peter Guralnick's Elvis twofer, which buries the canard that Presley was a dumb cracker pretty deep. But these four books are depressingly far from that level.

Kirby's problem isn't so much his witting exaggeration of "Tutti Frutti"'s import--"no music changed the world the way this song did," and that's just the theme statement. The problem is the relative weight of this much-published poet and cultural democrat's insights and distortions. He doesn't need Little Richard to remind the world how good art proceeds from accident and the unconscious, but he does need Little Richard to be irreducible in a way that's muddled by the tales of how Bumps Blackwell and Earl Palmer bent "Tutti Frutti"'s seminal stroke of genius. Worse, his avowal that "the first rock will always be the best rock," anchored though it is to relevant Baudelaire and Greil Marcus references, sinks low in the water when he clumsily drops such recent names as Master P, the White Stripes, and the Arcade Fire. Like so many good-hearted pop advocates, Kirby has a thing for his flaming youth. It's no surprise whatsoever to learn that he's a Southerner born in 1944.

In addition, Kirby shares an annoying secondary characteristic with fellow Southerner Coleman: defensiveness over nothing. While acknowledging that his hero's major work comprises a mere hour of music recorded over 16 months half a century ago, Kirby is offended when he can't find a Little Richard CD at the Honolulu Borders; while acknowledging that his hero made congeniality his metier, Coleman is outraged that history fails to recognize Domino's integration "revolution." In addition, both men staunchly promote their patches of Southern turf, Macon for the Louisiana-born Kirby, New Orleans for the Haiti-born Coleman. This is all such a waste. Southern black at its base, rock and roll is vastly richer for how that heritage was interpreted in at least a dozen cities nationwide; sniping at other writers--which usually means demolishing some little guys while barely winging your serious targets--is a waste of time unless writing is your subject.

That's my excuse, and I'll try to keep it short. I need to mention that Coleman does groundbreaking work on Domino's pre-rock stardom and the teen-targeted package tours of '56-'57 as well as providing loads of biographical data on a very private man who unfortunately remains so. I need to mention that Pegg combines stalwart digging with a well-meant attempt to situate the facts in the twin contexts of American racism and Berry's sexual obsessions, but lacks the follow-through to figure out how this close-mouthed trickster understands either. As for Bonomo, his discographical tidbits are of use. But his prose is ungainly, his judgment is unreliable, and he leads with the barely explored theory that the Star Club album is about "sincerity"--an unfortunate term that he spruces up with boilerplate etymology without indicating that Lionel Trilling once wrote a book about it, much less that others might judge self-proclaimed "stylist" Lewis the most insincere original rock and roller.

Although all four subjects are alive, only one of our authors has met his man--Coleman, who calls Domino his "friend" yet cites his own interviews with him just four times in 301 footnotes (Kirby gets more mileage out of talking briefly to Little Richard on the phone). Journalist Coleman is also the only fulltime professional writer of the four, although Bonomo has published two other rock books as well as one of prose poetry. Kirby is a chaired professor at Florida State and Bonomo won a teaching prize at the University of Northern Illinois, where he's worked since 1995. And Pegg now runs a small indie label in Syracuse, where I trust he has a more reliable source of income. That's because none of these writers is making minimum wage off his books--they're in it for the usual combination of love and ego. Coleman and Pegg's publishers, Da Capo, and Routledge respectively, favor researched projects; Kirby's and Bonomo's, Continuum, is best-known for its 33 1/3 album minibooks and encourages more personal and occasional work. But none of the three houses is even midlist in its economic profile. I've yet to find a publishing pro who thinks the four books together could have garnered $35,000 in advances.

I have my own scratch theory about why these '50s geniuses cry out for rehistoricization--something to do with the transition from Tin Pan Alley (sure Lewis emulated Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, but nobody explores the third old-timer he always namechecks: Al Jolson) and the timing of the counterculture (to which the arty young relate more spontaneously than they do to ba-lomp-bam-boom). But I don't expect a theory. What would be nice is if just one of these biographies paid its subject the standard respect due a great artist: argued that this fella who lived his life such-and-so configured his music so-and-such because his experiences plus his vision plus these inflections of accident and unconscious and sociology impelled him to explore these themes with these inevitably complex-to-contradictory results. This of course means that I think artists' biographies are best conceived by strong-minded critics, which on the present evidence not even Kirby seems to be--unlike Tosches and Guralnick, whose critical ideas or lack of same I've long criticized, but who stand tall in this bunch.

Not that Berry, Lewis, Richard, or Domino is a self-evident candidate for such respect. We may see them as artists in the sense we apply that term to the game-changing Bob Dylan, and we should. But they saw themselves as "entertainers," as did those who documented their heydays, which only in the case of circa-1970 country chart-topper Lewis presaged a career that involved more than ill-fated comeback albums and the oldies circuit. Lewis and Little Richard have been outgoing, Berry and Domino secretive, but all are close to unknowable even by celebrity standards. They'll probably remain so until their deaths free up the public record and their survivors' tongues. But to paraphrase Little Richard in Marcus's Mystery Train, that would be getting what we want and losing what we have.

So if '50s artists have gotten too creaky for a midlist advance, well, I harbor a well-founded preference for journalists over academics in these matters, but I'm ready to settle--both prose and thought have been picking up on the other side of the fence, especially with so many cash-strapped journos running to hide behind it. So hear me now, academic to be named later. If some tenured English prof wanted to write a new biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Thomas Love Peacock, he or she would get grant money, sabbatical time, and university press interest in a trice. Do the same for Little Richard. Give the writing the time writing needs. Impress reluctant sources with your hifalutin credentials. And oh yeah, do what you can to keep it around 400 pages. To paraphrase Van Morrison, it's too soon to stop now.

Barnes & Noble Review, September 16, 2010