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

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> >From: Robert B. Tomshany
> >Date: Tuesday, July 09, 2002 4:36 PM

If it's OK to ask about your daughter Nina, I'd like to inquire about her reactions to being reared by two professional writers and exposed to a huge amount of music. You've commented on Nina's musical acuity before, and I'm sure you'll do so again, but now that she's fast approaching full-fledged adulthood I wonder whether she might express her talent by making music herself? Or, having two writers for parents, might she be more interested in a literary career, whether writing about music or something else? Also, if she seems clearly headed in one of these two directions, how does she see her relationship to these fields--art/show business on the one hand, or literature/journalism on the other?

Nina shows no interest in being a writer, although she attributes her large vocabulary to growing up around us. She's a pretty talented musician, but so far hasn't been inclined to pursue that either. Insofar as she thinks about a career in music, she thinks about the biz or the studio. But she's just finished her junior year in high school. Really, who knows?

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> >From: Chris Feik
> >Date: Tuesday, July 09, 2002 7:40 PM

Why do you reckon that Afropop has had such little influence on rock/pop emanating from the English-speaking world, whereas reggae/dub influenced the sound and feel of everything from Clapton to the Clash to Ace of Base?

Reggae's less foreign. It's r&b-derived. It's in English, an attraction never to be discounted. It comes from the Americas. And the rhythm's easier--a distant cousin of the polka via ska, I've long believed. It's really hard to imagine the Bellamy Brothers doing a competent mbalax or soukous rip.

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> >From: Martin Miller
> >Date: Wednesday, July 10, 2002 12:39 AM

First, I would like to say that I have enjoyed your opinions on music for almost 20 years now and eagerly await your Consumer Guide column every month. I'm writing to ask your opinions on several albums that you've mentioned in passing but haven't given a grade to due to fact that the records were released as imports or they existed before your Consumer Guide column was established. Anyway here's the list:

Blue Cheer, Oh Pleasant Hope
A late-'69 release that got a B+ and I haven't heard since approximately 1980, if then.

Adverts, Crossing the Red Sea
A Greil Marcus fave I never got (he does like those Britpunk bands with women in them)--I think the Adverts boil down to "Gary Gilmore's Eyes."

Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
A good record that never meant anything to me personally--I prefer any early GH, also Wild Honey and many other late-'60s early-'70s albums.

Del Shannon, Further Adventures of Charles Westover
Silly record.

The Serpent Power
A solid A-, now available on CD.

Moby Grape, Wow
B plus at the time, I play the Legacy twofer.

Jefferson Airplane, Crown of Creation
Their best album, I thought at the time, although my initial dislike of them reasserted itself bigtime around 10 or 15 years ago.

Soft Boys, Underwater Moonlight
Sounded good when I checked it out mid-'80s and I think I replayed the CD reissue, but you know, Robyn Hitchcock definitely ain't my guy.

Swamp Dogg, Total Destruction to Your Mind
My introduction to Jerry Williams, an A- at the time that I wouldn't swear has maintained there.

Streets--English punk compilation on Beggars Banquet label
A minus.

Any studio or compilation album by Cream, Them, or the Yardbirds with a grade A- or higher
My fave Cream album is Goodbye, second Fresh Cream, certainly no other A minuses there, and I've never liked the Yardbirds on more than a cut-by-cut basis despite many attempts to enlighten myself; maybe it's that Mickey Most thing, or maybe it's the singing and songwriting, eh?

Chrysalis, Definition
I remember the band name, vaguely.

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> >From: Rodney Taylor
> >Date: Wednesday, July 10, 2002 6:31 AM

One of the things that I like about you is that your ears can appreciate both the Backstreet Boys and Sonic Youth. Do you think this reflects your having grown up when "popular" and "quality" weren't seen as mutually exclusive categories, and do you see any kind of generation divide among rock critics (not to oversimplify or anything)? Do you think today's rockcrit establishment, by and large, would have liked Elvis P. at the time, or would they have preferred folk or jazz purity?

I think there's no more important issue in rock criticism than the one you suggest--the idea that popular means bad not only is hell on good criticism, it's a perversion of why and how rock criticism started. As with the novel, where a similar mindset leads arbiters to conclude that Walter Abish is more important than Bruce Sterling, what makes all but the most abstract subcultural rock work descends from the same kind of formal grounding that made Chuck Berry popular almost half a century ago. Yet the opposite is a working assumption of most young critics, especially the more adventurous ones, adventurous and smart being far from the same thing. That said, I think a lot of what's popular today is very bad indeed. I only listen to the radio when I'm in the same room with my daughter, don't recognize half of what's played, and rarely feel much impulse to dispense with my ignorance. And that said, the best show I've caught all year, easy, was by Pink. We'll see whether Orchestra Baobab/Super Rail Band matches up.

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> >From: Charles Carlino
> >Date: Wednesday, July 10, 2002 8:32 AM

What do/did you have against Laura Nyro's music anyway? Be as short or long-winded as you want.

Hyperromanticsm generally turns my stomach, as do earth mothers. She did write some good tunes, though.

In an old review of an Essra Mohawk album, you said: "When she calls herself a 'full-fledged woman,' it sounds like 'pool player's' woman, which given her persona makes more sense." What did you mean by "given her persona?" She's a mysterious figure, sure, but what exactly is her persona?

All I knew or know about Essra Mohawk is that album, which suggested (as I recall, and what I don't recall is whether morbid curiosity tempted me to put on the reissue, so we're talking 32 years ago) hyperromantic earth mother more likely to dig macho jerks than pencil-necked geeks. Although come to think of it most pool players aren't exactly musclebound.

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> >From: Jim McGaw
> >Date: Wednesday, July 10, 2002 5:46 AM

I've always been curious about the number of times you generally listen to a CD/album before grading it, and whether that number of spins has gone up or down over the years. Due to the nature of your job, it must be frustrating that you simply don't have the time--unlike a casual fan--to listen to some of your favorite CDs over and over again.

If you'll read the intros to my CD books, you'll see that not having time for my favorite music has long been the biggest drawback to this job. Nevertheless, the figures remain the same: at least three listens for an HM or written pan of any sort, at least five for anything that makes the body of the CG, and those are the low-end figures. That means spins, not dedicated listens--a lot of it is just processing while I do something else. But it does take time.

Are there many artists whose catalogues you've completely reassessed in terms of your critical reception--and how has getting older played a part in all that? (Example: You once included Frank Sinatra in a "Meltdown" list, but years later gave a few of his reissues/compilations an A or A-.)

People keep asking me this question and the answer is always the same: one hallmark of my work is that I don't write about something until I know what I think. This means I don't change my mind much, although I might if I had more time to relisten, I suppose. I do change it a little. As for Sinatra, he sucked in the '80s. Also, hyperbole and cognitive dissonance are fun.

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> >From: Paul Hayden
> >Date: Thursday, July 11, 2002 9:43 AM

In the past 5 to 10 years, which artist has pleasantly surprised you the most, and which artist has disappointed you the most?

The rough answer to that question would probably be the past 20 years' two most durable and prolific artists, with the possible confusing exception of Youssou N'Dour, whose quality is more tied up in live performance: Prince and Sonic Youth. I thought Prince could keep going forever, and while he may yet, he's definitely slowed down in the past five years. From anybody else his recent output would be more than acceptable; from him it seems barrel scrapings. Sonic Youth, after presaging and then riding the grunge wave, basically abandoned the eternal evil teen thing and began to make some of the most beautiful adult rock ever: Experimental Jet Set, A Thousand Leaves, NYC Ghosts and Flowers. I'm not so sure about the new one, Murray Street. But this was music no one anticipated and many young and old failed to get.

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> >From: Steve Farneth
> >Date: Thursday, July 11, 2002 11:51 AM

Have you had a chance to listen to the new Springsteen recordings yet? What do you think? Is this going to be a great, elaborately arranged rock album worthy of the ghosts he's asking us to dance with or will it be self-conscious and written entirely in metaphor?

I got invited to some listening sessions and tried to make one but couldn't. "Elaborately arranged" is never a big plus by me, not even with six pieces, so I hope they're not.

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> >From: Chuck Tahirali
> >Date: Friday, July 12, 2002 12:34 PM

Having just read the pieces written by RJ Smith and Simon Frith for Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough, it is interesting to note the contrast between Mr. Frith’s apparently hard-won lesson (“As an editor Christgau taught me that self-expression is not a matter of writing what comes into your head but working and working on words until they say what you want them to mean”) and Mr. Smith’s pointed remembrances of the editor’s candor and spontaneity ("Bob Christgau doesn’t think the way other people do; he doesn’t filter his thoughts like most folks").

I find myself wondering: Which approach, if either, predominates when you create your capsule music reviews? What is the ratio of CG reviews that are, more or less, spontaneously composed (that write themselves, so to speak) to those that inspire or require constant refining, re-working and re-writing? Is enthusiasm for the music the determining factor (one way or the other)?

The answer to that is simple. In speech, I'm notoriously candid. As a writer, I'm notoriously slow. CG capsules are generally worked, worked, and reworked, which is one reason their syntax is so dense. On the other hand, I'm always trying to catch ideas or conceits or free associations on the fly as I listen, and have been known to drink a midnight beer to get one flowing.

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> >From: Stan
> >Date: Sunday, July 14, 2002 9:09 AM

What are your top five concerts of all time?

I'll leave this concert question out of the list compendium and answer off the top of my head: Big Brother at Monterey 1967, Luamba Franco at Manhattan Center 1984 (1983?), supposedly a subpar show, Hüsker Dü late at Gildersleeves in front of about eight people in 82-83, Clash at Leeds 1977, and, oh hell, Coltrane joined by Eric Dolphy on the encore at the Village Gate I believe in September 1962. Those were great ones--there are dozens more. A real list would require a week of listmaking, consultation, and thought.

What artist/group(s) do you never miss when they come to New York?

There's no one I absolutely don't miss--stay home a weekend for, or miss a big deadline for. Very close, however, are my two favorite live bands: Youssou N'Dour et Super Etoile and Los Van Van.

With MP3s becoming so dominant, and CDs stuffed with filler, do you soon see an end to the "album" era?

I think the LP may die and may not--probably not, they're too useful for the DIYers who are the future of music. Either way, I don't think MP3's will have much to do with it. Some other Net technology might.

Happy belated birthday to the greatest of all time! Will Robert Christgau retire at 65? 70? And if so, are there any critics with somewhat similar tastes that you would recommend to us folks who love good music but won't have the time to sift through it all?

I have no expectation of retiring, because I'm not going to stop loving music or needing to earn a living--I'm not rich or even well off and never will be. If the LP does die that could change. So could a layoff--the newspaper business isn't necessarily eternal either.

I know you listen for 8-12 hours each day. That's an incredible amount of time. So, which do you do first--pee, or put on some music?


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Click here for part 4 of the Dean