Answers From the Dean
Online Exchange with Robert Christgau, part II

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> >From: Chris Feik
> >Date: Thursday, July 04, 2002 10:47 PM

OK, OK, of course rock and roll is America and America is rock and roll. But in an age of creeping American unilateralism I wonder about occasional parochialism in your writing of Rock History (not so much recently, I admit). When you wrote about "avant-punk" way back in 1977, you assimilated it into the legacy of American acts like the Stooges and New York Dolls. Seems wrong now--those bands were drug-fucked suburban aesthetes, whereas the Pistols and the Clash had something else cooking. In Australia--no slouch when it comes to provincialism--the first Saints record was a triumph of angle-grinding guitar that drew on the Stooges, etc., but meshed it with the Brit Migrant Experience. It was avant-punk, no worries, but for you it was a "naive one-shot" or some such. Kraut-rock never got a guernsey in your Consumer Guides despite the undeniable joys of Neu! And I can't believe you would just dismiss Abba like that. What's going on, Robert?

First of all, I don't think the Stooges or the Dolls were suburban aesthetes--Iggy was some kind of trailer trash and Johansen is from Staten Island, which ain't the suburbs (and of course Thunders and Nolan were much proler). In any case the connection I drew was formal, which is undeniable in an evolutionary way. What's more, to me the idea that the Dolls and of course the Ramones (also in no way suburban, ever been to the boroughs, man?) made Britpunk possible is an absolute historical fact. Where I dissent is from the stupid Legs McNeill bullshit that the Clash and the Pistols weren't different and every bit as good. Going on to the question of Yurrup, well, band for band I don't hear it that way. I tried to like the Neu! reissues and didn't get as far as I did with Can, can still barely get through an Abba comp much less an album, though I do love the predictable specific songs. More to the point, I got into pop out of the conviction that America and Europe are at war culturally, and statuswise it's clear to me that America is still the underdog--that Europeans, the British and the French and the Germans each in their own way, continue to look down their noses at American vulgarity, and Americans continue to suck it up. And I also continue to believe that the African influence on this particular polyglot, democratic, geographically heterogeneous yet electronically hooked-up culture gives the U.S. insuperable advantages in pop, as evidenced most recently in hip hop, now an undeniable world music where the U.S. maintains an undeniable musical edge.

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> >From: Cindy C.
> >Date: Fri, 5 Jul 2002 12:18:43 EDT

I would like to know what your favorite bootleg albums are, i.e., what great "A" albums are we missing simply because the material isn't officially released? I know you listed Pulnoc's Live in New York on your 1989 A list. Is this available for purchase anywhere? You also mentioned Television's Arrow. Is the newly remastered The Blow Up better than the old ROIR cassette--only a B+? What are your Top 5 favorite bootleg CDs?

Basically, I'm not interested in bootlegs. The ones mentioned in the letter are every one I've ever cared about except for the techno mix tape DJ DB gave me in 1993 and a few live tapes by Tin Huey I used to play in the late '70s--and, oh yeah, I own the Stones' "Cocksucker Blues," that's nice, and I think I own a Neil Young boot or two. The Pulnoc isn't available, but a less distinguished similar CD recorded the night after is, assuming Globus International is still in business; I explain the difference in the '90s CG book. All these records are by artists I had a personal connection to--people I reported on, usually. Generous fans send me tapes and records now and again, and Greil Marcus once persuaded me to drop 80 bucks or something on Dylan's Ten of Swords (in addition to giving me other precious items, notably the Manchester concert), but I never seem to get into them. I'd rather check out more of the generally available stuff I'm always behind on. I know bootlegs aren't all collectoritis, rarity for its own sake, and adoration of the genius. But too often they're close. Really not my kind of thing.

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> >From: Frank Kogan
> >Date: Friday, July 05, 2002 9:07 PM

Could you say more about canons? When interviewed by Barbara O'Dair you expressed ambivalence towards them, leaning more (I thought) towards distrust. I myself think that a canon can be bad or good: in philosophy, the canon has narrowed and distorted the field. In film criticism, however, the auteurist canon, esp. Sarris's, has had a wildly positive effect, encouraging interest in everything and rescuing whole areas of culture from oblivion. I think canon-making--e.g., The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll--has helped rock criticism more than hurt it (so far) and hasn't stopped me from liking K-Tel's 1975 Disco Mania compilation even more than the Who's Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy.

I think canons can be very useful, both as monoculture, a body of aesthetic knowledge and experience for people to share (and also rebel against), and, shit yes, as a list of high-quality works for people to, shit yes, consume. But when the rock and roll canon becomes the domain of MTV and Rolling Stone, it obviously loses a lot of its charm, greatly accelerating the chief negative effect of canonicity, which is to leach the freshness and charm from art--an effect that already occurs naturally in time, but is intensified by respectability. To put it another way, I'm not at all sure that Chuck Berry wouldn't be better off as a living artist without the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although it's probably done wonders for his accrued wealth. My own relationship to the rock and roll canon has clearly changed with the years. The 70s Consumer Guide book is definitely a kind of canon-defining work, making the case for Van Morrison and, say, the McGarrigle sisters, and against Black Sabbath and, say, Donny Hathaway. But one reason I devoted a whole Voice supplement to my various '70s preferences while tucking my top 10 of the '80s in agate into an essay and not bothering with a '90s list is that no one including me could imagine that anybody but me thinks Guitar Paradise of East Africa and Latin Playboys are the two greatest albums of the '90s. I think the canon is far murkier, vaster, and more various now than it was 20 years ago, and that this trend will likely continue. I don't think that's necessarily good, either. But it's the way it is.

Who are the 5 best ballad singers of the rock 'n' roll era? By "ballad" I mean "Moon River" not "Barbara Allen." "Rock 'n' roll era" can mean whatever you want it to.

  • Frank Sinatra
  • George Jones
  • Willie Nelson
  • Al Green
  • Elvis Presley

         If Sinatra ain't rock-era enough for you, just stick in Justin Timberlake. Billie Holiday isn't even rock-era enough for me.

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    > >From: Wayne Greene
    > >Date: Saturday, July 06, 2002 11:29 AM

    Major or indie--you asked for it...

  • If Artemis, distributed by RED, is considered major distribution, then Bloodshot, distributed by ADA, must be the same.
  • RED--owned by SONY.
  • ADA owned by AOL-Time Warner--furthermore, all of ADA's back end finance, manufacturing, and pick-pack-and-ship is all performed by WEA.
  • Real World--distributed by Virgin/ EMI.
  • Rounder--distributed by Universal/ UMVD.
  • Mondo Melodia--distributed by Ark21/ UMVD.

    You obviously know more about this stuff than I do. For over a year I've contemplated writing a piece about what is now indie, which would involve doing research of exactly the sort your question involves. I've rejected the idea mostly because it seems too damn specialized, although given how many protestations of virtue go into these questions maybe I should. My basic suspicion is that deals vary so much that any generalization is difficult if not impossible. Independent distribution is such a threatened business that distribution in itself can no longer be a test of whether you're indie or not. In this particular case I'd want to talk with the heads of Artemis, Bloodshot, and Ark 21, all relatively accessible guys, and see what they have to say. My information has RealWorld going through Narada. Is Narada in turn Virgin/EMI? Oops, missed that. Does anybody really want us to know? Often I think not.

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    > >From: OvrwrkdB
    > >Date: Saturday, July 06, 2002 10:04 PM

    In your section of reviews of albums by the Who, you called The Who Sell Out "their only great album" and yet, you gave Who's Next an A, downgraded from your original grade of A+. Isn't this a contradiction? Or is there a further explanation at work here ?

    The brief answer is that for a long time I've found it surprisingly hard to listen to the Who. In the '70s book I rank Who's Next seventh, although I think it was my number one in the zeroth or first Pazz & Jop. Now it would certainly dip below Blue, John Prine, ZOSO, the long-lost Cry of Love, probably the even longer-lost Motel Shot, and others. I put it on for the first time in at least a decade as I began writing this, and it certainly sounds good. But in the '80s it became clear--I edited a great piece by Mick Farren that made the argument very strongly--that the Who had turned into (very nearly) the worst kind of art-rock band, and with benefit of hindsight all that synth noodling and Daltrey emoting on Who's Next makes me a little nauseous. Anyway, I always loved The Who Sell Out best of all.

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    > >From: Mark D. Bradford
    > >Date: Monday, July 08, 2002 7:13 AM

    One of the most startling things I've ever read about/by any critic, was an interview Dave Marsh gave not long ago in which he talked about how upset he was when Harry Chapin died. Harry Chapin. They had to agree to disagree about Harry's records, but they'd been good friends, anyway. (Maybe there's more--or less--to that. I wouldn't know.) Somewhat similarly, Pauline Kael once talked about having been very friendly with Jean Renoir (or Sam Peckinpah?), and how painful it was for both of them when his work went into decline. Have you ever been in a comparable position?

    I believe friendship is more important than music, which is probably why I have so few friends who are musicians, the only "famous" ones people I knew long before they were "famous"--Roy Nathanson, who I met when he was Ray Dobbins's 21-year-old boyfriend, former Mofungo bassist Robert Sietsema and that circle, some salsa musicians who I'm connected to via a niece-and-nephew who managed a band and then opened a club in San Juan, a few jazz players who are friends of my trumpet-moonlighting brother-in-law. In those cases I've sometimes reviewed records anyway, since omitting them would read wrong in the CG code that anything omitted isn't worth my while. I once panned a Phil Ochs record and then got to know him doing political work in the '60s--he quoted my meanest comment ("couldn't play the guitar any worse were his right hand webbed," I think) in his press kit and died owing me five bucks. And God knows I've really liked a few of the musicians I've met. But in general this sort of thing doesn't happen to me. And I always wonder about journalists, especially critics, who form close relationships with lots of musicians. Bad for the work, seems to me. I hate saying negative things about people I like. But I grit my teeth and do it anyway, as pungently as possible.

    Less general topic: Can. Erstwhile part of the Euro-"progressive" problem, with occasional, largely unrealized hints of a solution. You reserved judgment in '70s CG book, and panned Soon Over Babaluma, made roughly two years after their semi-improvised Stockhausen synthesis began to decay into tuneful air conditioning. But unlike aficionados who prize the earlier, "sprawling" Tago Mago, I prize it only for the singularly unsprawling (and never equaled by them) lead cuts on what was once Side 1: three abrasive tracks-resembling-tunes that cross-reference Stockhausen via Fun House rather than Miles Davis (who was listening to a lot of Stockhausen himself, actually; cf. "Calypso Frelimo"). Bullshit?

    I'll try to dig out Tago Mago and play those three tracks. But I put enough time into that band to be highly dubious. Their instrumental tone and rhythmic feel always seem at least somewhat wrong to me. I've listened to too much jazz to settle for less.

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    > >From: Chris Feik
    > >Date: Monday, July 08, 2002 10:06 PM

    Why is Lionel Trilling one of your heroes?

    To be honest, I almost never look at Trilling anymore--he certainly isn't up there with Raymond Williams, Pauline Kael, A.J. Liebling, or for that matter my friend Marshall Berman, who has most of his virtues, a much broader frame of reference, and none of the half-conscious snobbery that's such a drag on Trilling's moral/political impulses. But Trilling stood out back in the New Criticism days (which I always maintained presaged text-first poststructuralism far more than the pomo crowd generally admits) for insisting that literature was always more than text, and the clarity and grace of his prose put him on another level from his lit-crit contemporaries. Stylistically he makes a nice corrective to the knottiness of Williams, who together with Kael I regard as the greatest critic of the 20th century (that I've read). Without having rechecked either, I'd guess I'd still feel more agreement with Trilling on Jane Austen than with Edward Said, even though recent readings of Persuasion and Mansfield Park very much brought home Said's criticism of the unacknowledged sociopolitical underpinnings of Austen's enlightened civility.

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    > >From: George Koo
    > >Date: Monday, July 08, 2002 10:51 PM

    What do you feel about DJ culture? DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, X-ecutioners, etc. Do you feel that they are legitimate artists or just creative opportunists?

    I think DJ Shadow is some kind of visionary genius, like Kid Koala's album a lot, and was completely delighted by Koala in the context of Bullfrog earlier this year. But for the most part I think there's too much technique and not enough content in DJing. Musically it strikes me as being a little like drum solos or African percussion ensembles--usually I want more.

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    > >From: Dave Q
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 09, 2002 3:32 AM

    Hi Dean! You are truly God-like and I know all your books inside out and back to front--as a writer you are without peer. (The Dave Mason section in the '70s CG book is the best comedy writing I have ever seen.) However, this question is directed to the "critic" more than the "writer"--does it ever bother you that many of the acts dismissed as "meltdown" or "D-" in earlier CGs have gone on to be revered and subject to massive critical re-estimation (e.g. Black Sabbath, Tim Buckley), while others who you championed (e.g., various singer-songwriters) have vanished without trace, and their records aren't even in print anymore? When current bands that you like cite Rush, Japan and Montrose as "influences" does it elicit a benign chuckle, or a Homer Simpson forehead-slap, or do you see it as more depressing evidence that civilization really is ending? I'm just wondering how this affects writers in general as we're in a unique period in history where the pioneers of a sub-genre (rockcrit) are still active but have now been around long enough to see what effect their ideas have had on pop music, or pop music discourse at least.

    It's never occurred to me that '70s AOR/art-rock is responsible for the shallowness of today's pop, such as it is. Studio virtuosity has been a law unto itself in pop since before the rock era.

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    > >From: Astral Weaks
    > >Date: Tuesday, July 09, 2002 1:07 PM

    What was it like at the inception of rockcrit, back in the mid-'60s? And did you still think that you would be doing it today?

    We were making it up as we went along and made a lot of mistakes along the way, but the best of us were onto something of tremendous importance intellectually. I thought it would always be part of what I did, didn't imagine it would be all of it.

    What do you feel that the field has gained and lost since then?

    It's gained professionalism and a body of knowledge, and lost inspiration (an organic maturing process) and freedom (I blame capitalism).

    What do you feel about the apparent decline in standing critics have had with labels since the '70s? The way I've read it, labels used to be more than happy to sponsor junkets and give out records, while today they won't even send out anything due to fear of critical piracy and leaks.

    All us early rock critics made our own rules because we were the only game in town. That meant among other things that if we wanted to write actual criticism, we could. Soon, although less soon than might have been predicted, both editors and imitators realized it was possible to prepare a less demanding rock-journalistic product, and true critics have been embattled ever since. As for the record companies, all celebrity journalism has been subjected to similar constrictions. Celebrity journalism feeds off access to fame, an easily controllable commodity. The more writers out there, the less access you have to give them to get what you want.

    Have you ever objected to the winning album/single in the Pazz and Jop poll? If so, what, why, and who did better?

    I thought Imperial Bedroom and the Arrested Development album were bad choices and said why at the time.

    Do you remember how much your first Rolling Stones concert tickets cost?

    Five bucks Canadian, I believe--maybe four. I never had to buy them again.

    Word association/opinions on:

    Richard Goldstein & Sgt. Pepper.
    He was wrong. He's wrong about Eminem too.

    Dennis Wilson

    "Now Sounds"
    What are they?

    The latest Stones tour.
    I'm not going unless somebody begs.

    Wes Anderson
    Seems pretty good, prefer Mira Nair.

    The "new" NYC/Brooklyn scene.
    I'm too old for scenes, but I'm sorry I haven't seen more of the bands.

    "The Osbournes"
    Good show that portends many worse shows.

    Not what it should be.

    The absence of bass players in some of today’s best bands.
    Sleater-Kinney seems to motorvate without, but I can't think of another one offhand.

    Anthony DeCurtis
    Detested his priggish, status-conscious Lester Bangs piece.

    Uncut magazine
    Is that about foreskins?

    "Punk Chic"
    The only Chic I ever liked had Bernard Edwards in it.

    Sound Opinions
    Opinions are like brains--everybody's got one.

    Clear Channel Communications
    May they go out of business in ignominy without further compromising my 401K.

    I've crossed the country by automobile 10 times and would love to do it again.

    Seo Taji, the inventor of hardcore Korean "Pimp-Rock."
    I have a thing against pimps.

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    Click here for part 3 of the Dean