The Big Lookback: The Three Roches Crack Wise

From the Feb. 20, 1978, "Village Voice": Carola Dibbell on the Roches live at Kenny's Castaways


A month ago Rock & Roll Globe published this extraordinary interview with Terre and Suzzy Roche by veteran rock scribe and longtime Pazz & Jop stalwart Jim Sullivan. I hadn’t thought about the Roches in a while, in part because I didn’t own their debut and still-finest album on CD, an oversight I have now corrected. But before I even did so there was another oversight I felt compelled to correct: going public with one of the many examples of her Village Voice rock criticism my wife and musical advisor Carola Dibbell hadn’t put up at her site. Fortunately, she did have a fragile 42-year-old clip, so I did half an hour of data entry and sent it to Tom Hull, who posted it posthaste.

One reason I did this is that—cf. the Cornershop piece I linked to in my Josh Clover review—Carola never wrote a dull Riff and I want every one to be available. (Many are still uninput. Two I regularly reread for the laughs alone: “Irish Catholic” and “Big Mac.”) To my knowledge, “Three Roches Crack Wise” was the sisters’ first review in any major outlet. The anonymous female pal it quotes is Ellin Hirst a/k/a Ms. Clawdy, a star of Ellen Willis’s renowned “Beginning to See the Light” summum. Carola’s Roches review is absolutely worth reading—lotsa laughs. But the reason I felt compelled to cite it isn’t just my uxoriousness—it’s that it set off a chain of events that Sullivan’s interview overlooks. The piece’s biggest admirer was Voice senior editor Karen Durbin, who in ‘90s was the paper’s editor-in-chief for a while. A major music fan—she did some terrific Rolling Stones coverage for us—Durbin went to see the Roches first chance and was so smitten she wrote a major Roches feature that put them on the map the way Carola’s brief review couldn’t. A few weeks ago I contacted the Voice to see if we could dig that out and link to it, but the paper’s archives are a mess these days, and Durbin isn’t available for comment either. But the Voice played a role germinating the Roches debut and sui generis masterpiece and I’m here to brag about it.

Of the many odd things about what us old CBGBites think of as the punk period, the oddest being that it was also the disco period, the second oddest is the rise of not one but two long-running folkie sister acts having no apparent structural relationship to punk, disco, or “rock”: the Roches and also if not more so Kate & Anna McGarrigle. Like disco in an altogether different dimension, the two constituted a blow against rock sexism as sharp as if less powerful than Patti Smith’s. But forced to choose, as fortunately I’m not, I’d take the McGarrigles, who announced themselves with not one but two remarkable albums, one of which included the title song of Linda Ronstadt's breakthrough 1974 Heart Like a Wheel. I’ve been playing the rest of the Roches’ catalogue in the wake of Sullivan’s piece, and while it holds up pretty much as well as I thought at the time, debut excepted I don’t find that even the best of it has quite the heft of several late McGarrigles albums I could name, and the 2003 Warner best-of jocosely titled The Collected Works of the Roches is now a rarity. Nevertheless, they remained both idea people and clowns just as Carola hoped—and as she also hoped, earned a living at it. If you call that living—which to their credit they did and still do.

There is a kind of woman who experiences uncontrollable urges to wear boxer-style underpants, or to get drunk and insult the useful, or to buy shoes out of pity for them, or to make terrible crucial decisions from pure curiosity. A while ago, two such women went to see the Roches, the idiosyncratic sister trio who headlined at Kenny’s Castaways last week, and before the first number was half through, the skeptical one had turned red every place that showed and whispered, “They’re the best!” to the other one. The other one was me, and I already knew. Not that this wry group—specializing in acid judgments, sweet contrapuntal harmonies, intricate word and rhyme play, and outright buffoonery—is the new Beatles, but that, if anyone is us up on that jukebox, sister, it’s them. I don’t just mean us thinking clowns, either. I mean anyone who believes in postponing compromise for as long as possible. My guess is that the Roches have hit on humor as the best way to tell an audience complex truths engagingly while while staying true to their own relatively modest and relatively thorny selves.

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Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy Roche grew up in Park Ridge, New Jersey, where their father was an English teacher, Irish actor, etc. Maggie and Terry toured the coffeehouse circuit from 1969 to 1975, when they cut Seductive Reasoning for Columbia. The songs were ambitious, enigmatic, not without wit, and delivered in sweet, sarcastic voices. Subjects included an uncertain interracial romance, town-and-gown conflicts at an Appalachian college, and a character sketch of a complicated boy whose shy virginity the singer is honored to take. Self-doubt after the recording and disappearance of this striking album led the two sisters out of music and into a kung fu temple in Louisiana, but some Christmas carolling with the younger Suzzy lured them back in 1976.

Last Wednesday’s show was the fifth I’ve seen in a year, all strange and wonderful. The first, on St. Patrick’s Day, featured Irish ballads, MC Terre’s measured sarcasm, and kitsch thrift-shop plums worn without a trace of chic (I seem to recall Terre in a wrinkled jumpsuit, probably homemade from one of those crummy “very easy” pants patterns; people always throw them out). Wednesday offered a spiffier Maggie and Terre (too bad!); a handful of songs new or new to me including a a simultaneously spoken and sung arrangement of a poem of someone called Jessie Fauset; some more familiar recent material; covers of “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane,” the Crystals’ “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” an Irish ballad called “The Factory Girl,” and the “Hallelujah” chorus; plus three songs from the album.

Although a third voice makes for more ambitious harmonies, the Roches’ sound is still a lot like the duo’s, with a clarity and rural twang out of bluegrass, I guess, delivered deadpan against lyrics like “I don’t want to be a doggone dog/I just want to lick your chin again,” or “Go south in winter if you want/Be what you are/A goose.” But Suzzy has reoriented the group. Sporting unmatched socks or bag-lady scarves, beating percussion on a book of Irish folksongs or a can of breadcrumbs, mugging shamelessly, posing somewhere between carved madonna and mental defective, she has, well, broadened the group’s humor. Where most of the group’s old material was Maggie’s old trick of making a musical shape highlight the humblest, most unlovely word in a phrase, exaggerated for comic timing, now goes for the odd syllable. And Suzzy brings a bag of new tricks. She yuks up “The Boy I Love” by repeating the ecstatic refrain “Yes he is!” “Yes he is!” so many times that she starts to mime justifications: maybe she’s so dimwitted it’s new for her each time, maybe the jerk asking “Is he?” is so dimwitted he or she can’t grasp her meaning yet, or maybe the jerk is trying to convince her to reconsider, or maybe this is just her job as telephone receptionist (or tape loop).

If they’re like anyone it’s the McGarrigles with a dash of Loudon Wainwright (who’s friends to both). Where the tongue-in-cheek sisters from Canada keep to the delicate, arch end of enigmatic dryness, the oddballs from New Jersey are more deadpan and rude. If the McGarrigles are ambivalent, the Roches are skeptical. More important, even in their serious songs—which I hope won’t disapper—the Roches seem less interested in remembered moments or relationships as such than struck by their place in various kinds of schemes. When I chatted with her, Terre volunteered a similar analysis: “We’re idea people.”

As I get meaner, lonelier, and more curious with the years, I take increasing comfort in idea people and clowns. In case this condition should prove chronic, I hope the Roches can keep both sides up. And earn a living, too.

Like Pops Never Happened: A Fortysomething's History of Music

Kelefa Sanneh, "Major Labels" (496 pp., 2021)


I’d like to call New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh a lapsed rock critic, but he’d prefer music critic in a hefty book that announces itself with the hooky title Major Labels, explains itself with the prosaic subtitle A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, and nails things down with the blunt chapter headings “Rock,” “R&B,” “Country,” “Punk,” “Hip-Hop,” “Dance Music,” and last but not least “Pop.” Although Sanneh, the 1976-born scion of a Black Gambian Yale religion professor and a white South African Yale language professor, covered the first three genres during an eight-year stint as a New York Times music critic, their chapters all aspire to third-person historical objectivity. The last four are first-person historical, reportorial with memoiristic details that include what I consider Sanneh’s establishing bona fide: having already aced a nuttily prescriptive student-taught “punk” course all prospective DJs at the Harvard radio station were compelled to master, he took a year off from school to work in record retail, a youthful act of musical madness that I say gives him the right to spice his history/narrative/whatever with stories about himself.

If I find Sanneh more compelling as a memoirist than a historian, that is chronologically inevitable. I know the history better than he does because I’ve had 34 more years not just to read up but to listen. Barely two decades after the 1925 invention of electrical recording kicked off what I like to call “pop music” myself, I had memorized my parents’ beloved South Pacific and gotten to know their 78s of Bing Crosby’s “Swinging on a Star” and Fats Waller’s “All That Meat and No Potatoes,” home study that primed me for “Sh-Boom,” “Maybellene,” and “Honky Tonk.” No way did Sanneh have the chance to do anything similar. As time passes, moreover, such artists as—to cite a baker’s dozen Sanneh’s history doesn’t even mention in reverse chronological order—Laurie Anderson, the Gang of Four, Al Green, Captain Beefheart, the Kinks, the Shirelles, Etta James, the Drifters, Lefty Frizzell, Fats Waller, Bing Crosby, Bill Monroe, and, last but also first, Louis Armstrong, who was often called Satchmo but preferred nothing more or less than Pops, recede ever further into the mists of literature. But though it’s pretty strange to stick Bob Marley in with the singer-songwriters because you have no room for pre-dancehall reggae, Sanneh does well enough with a general practice of devoting paragraphs or anyway sentences to many other faded and present kings and queens of pop.

Right, pop again: the crowning metagenre of the first U.S. journalist to, let us say, popularize—among critics, anyway—the anti-“rockist” line that has inflected U.K. music journalism since Dave Rimmer’s 1985 Boy George-hooked tome-lite Like Punk Never Happened. As I’ve recounted too many times, the self-same term has been my intellectual passion since well before I became a rock critic: namely, 1962, when my mind was blown by the upper-cased Pop Art of Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann. Between the albums I’ve graded and the polls I’ve overseen plus I’m pushing 80, young people may well assume I’m a “rockist.” But like my fellow oldtimers Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh, neither of whose musical tastes run much like mine anymore, I’ve always celebrated my roots in what was then top 40 radio—pop radio. Due to how my lifework turned out, I pretty much went off radio circa 1978. But I’ve never stopped arguing for what I designate “popular culture” and devised the term “semipopular” not in 1980, as Sanneh reports, but 1970, my exemplars the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Stooges, neither then legendary, both then slotted “rock” profoundly different though they were, though Sanneh relegates the Burritos to his “Country” chapter and the Stooges to “Punk.”

For the “Rock” chapter—which is hefty, at 87 pages a fifth rather than a seventh of the book—Sanneh has something different in mind. It begins with the Stones/Zep-adoring ubergroupie Pamela Des Barres and then devotes three pages to Grand Funk Railroad, the first rock band whose albums achieved major chart success in the teeth of negative reviews. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” skeptic though he is, Sanneh can’t ignore Nirvana and the lesser grunge that followed, but his polemical passion for two thirds of those 87 pages is the hair metal grunge killed off and the post-grunge crap that followed, with special attention to Mötley Crüe, respect aplenty to Guns ‘N Roses, and room for dozens more. Only in the final third does he pay his respects, sincere ones, to what he classifies as “soft rock”: singer-songwriters like Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon (for whose late work he expresses a quirky and perceptive enthusiasm), titans like Springsteen and Bowie and Elton John and even the Grateful Dead (Anthem of the Sun, good for him). But in toto this is an anti-“rockist” screed—a way to undermine the self-righteous ‘60s political pretensions anti-rockists can’t stop exaggerating or whining about. Note too that though he’s sharp enough on the Rolling Stones, he has little to say about none other than the Beatles. (Or U2, if you care, which I don’t really but he should.)

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And so it goes till it’s time for mini-histories of r&b, country, punk, hip-hop, and dance music, all notably short on the ‘40s, ‘50s, and even ‘60s. Sanneh’s r&b does include Louis Jordan but comes sans doowop or Stax-Volt and avec heaps of Motown and Gamble-Huff before addressing, to name only the biggest, Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston, R. Kelly (who Sanneh pauses to apologize for not seeing through in 2004), D’Angelo, and Beyoncé. He’s more impressed by Hank Williams’s “outlaw” (??) image and son Jr. than his yearning honky tonk vocals and tersely eloquent songwriting, but expresses a convincing fondness for such country icons as Dolly Parton, George Strait, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, even Kacey Musgraves—all of whom he regards credibly, different though they are, as Middle American white people who’d otherwise be beyond his ken. His teen crush punk barely brushes CBGB on its way to U.K. “anarchy,” hardcore purism, and the sainted Fugazi, then pauses for an atypically abstract and even academic five-page disquisition on riot grrrl and fleshes out that brief leftish foray with reflections on both punk radicals like the Dead Kennedys and pop-punk success stories like Green Day. The hip-hop chapter, as long as the rock one but with better artists, reveals that even as a punk Sanneh was also a rap fan, devotes five pages to The Source (where he interned after graduating from the very university that generated that seminal mag), and pays more mind to hip-hop’s “unapologetic American ambition” and “abiding failure to become respectable” than to its ever-evolving music—I’d hoped he would finally explain how to grok “trap” beats formally, but no.

Finally there’s the relatively scant “Dance Music,” which while summing up structurally and sociologically related phenomena that are half genre and half scene—“disco,” “house,” “rave,” “acid house,” “techno,” “progressive house,” “electronic dance music,” and more—as well as pausing briefly with scattered big-timers Chic, Madonna, Moby, Deadmau5, and Daft Punk, concludes: “By insisting that tracks are more important than songs, disco and its descendants continually weed out the dilettantes who only want to sing along, leaving behind the people who only want to dance for hours, getting lost in the music. This is an ongoing process, because it turns out that most of us love songs and singers and lyrics—we listen to music, especially popular music, in order to feel connected to the people who make it.”

Which brings us, ka-ching, to the foreordained climax of Sanneh’s not-quite-history and not-quite-argument: “pop,” meaning not the 78s that began gathering economic mass with electrical recording, nor the post-WW2 boom during which Bing Crosby continued his march to 300 hit singles as Frank Sinatra rendered him old hat, nor 1964’s six Beatles #1’s and 19 top 40s, but to Dave Rimmer, Boy George, and their like-punk-never-happened “‘new pop’,” which Sanneh avers “really was rebellious—it rebelled against the idea that hip music should be rebellious.” And he’s prudently described the chart successes of Michael Jackson’s, Prince’s, and eventually Beyoncé’s “r&b” and also hip-hop, where the pop success of hitmakers from OutKast to Bad Bunny get respect, this is clearly where Sanneh wants his not-quite-history and not-quite-argument to come to a climactic halt.

Yet the odd thing is that contemporary pop remains a rather amorphous thing in Major Labels. For some reason Sanneh declines to go into the marginalization-verging-on-disappearance of both the guitar and the drum kit from charting singles. Nor does he mention the multi-composed, emailed-in, pieced-together track-and-hook songwriting to which his New Yorker colleague John Seabrook devoted the much better book The Song Machine in 2015. (Add to the dozen unmentioneds above quintessential postmodern producer-songwriter Max Martin.) Moreover, Sanneh has almost nothing specific to say about two musical factors that (along with hooks, never forget hooks) have been the selling points and aesthetic boons of pop music for the century it’s been around: rhythm and voice. James Brown’s many mentions include not one that even hints how structurally crucial his rhythmic ideas have been to the last half century of music. And if there’s a single evocative vocal description in the entire book, Sanneh’s failure to make a pass at such niggling details with the world-class vocalists Hank Williams, George Jones, Aretha Franklin, and “one of the great R&B singers of all time” Beyoncé suckered me into missing it.

Sanneh reports that after he quit his Times music critic job to become a New Yorker generalist in 2008, he did his best to stay current musically by constructing playlists on iTunes and Spotify. Every week he’d add new albums to existing collections designated, in a distinction that kept getting trickier, “singing” and “rapping,” then play them on shuffle, quickly deleting anything that struck him as negligible even once. Thus he remains engaged with the “ongoing process” in which those who “love songs and singers and lyrics” “continue to feel connected to the people who make it.” I’ve assembled iTunes playlists of my own, but except for a few I conceived to please my wife or simplify a writing job or teach a music history class or once or twice compile some prized singles, usually their purpose is to speed aural access to prized CDs it’s tricky to dig out of my jammed shelves. That’s because what my Consumer Guiding forever leads me back to is A albums I want to spend my leisure ear time reaccessing. By now there’ve been so many that without a doubt there are some I’ll never hear again—many, probably. Mortality does suck.

“We listen to music, especially popular music, in order to feel connected to the people who make it,” you may recall Sanneh saying. This struck, encouraged, and pleased me. In 1998, promoting my Grown Up All Wrong collection, I wrote something similar that I collected in Is It Still Good to Ya? After citing such pop pleasures as groove, melody (“usually in the foreshortened form called tune”), the “funny rhyme,” and “the pithy turn of phrase,” I concluded, much like Sanneh, that “waiting beyond are the musicians themselves, not as they ‘really’ are, but as they create themselves in music.” Here I’ll note with some chagrin that I didn’t mention voices, and that I should have added that often the “musicians themselves” emerge from collectivities sometimes best called “groups” and sometimes “bands.” But thinking about it I soon realized that from “Mr. Lee” to “It Takes Two” there are many singles I cherish as nothing more and nothing less. Moreover, there are many groups I continue to perceive as living entities even when I know very well, for instance, when it’s Grant and when it’s Robert, as well as many solo artists who reveal new wrinkles and sometimes more every time I pay attention. A single is seldom enough to fully renew my acquaintance, much less modulate it. Although my attention will wax and wane as the disc spins on, I need the 30 or 45 or 60 minutes it lasts to re-establish a musical relationship. And for someone who’s grown to treasure human contact more than ever as the health of both human bodies and human relationships takes hit after hit, I feel fortunate I can still find the time. If that makes me a rockist, so the fuck be it.

Xgau Sez: November, 2021

The UC Davis writers' enclave, baseball movies worth a swing, respecting the Dead, Virgil Thompson and Harold Bloom vs. the hoi polloi, the plot against democracy, and underestimating evil

Davis is fast becoming your favorite writers’ enclave. I wonder if Joshua Clover and Kim Stanley Robinson know each other. — Michael Heath, no address

They do indeed. Last time I talked to Josh, at the Pop Conference a few years ago, I brought Robinson up because I was newly infatuated and aware that they both resided in the same burg. Josh told me he knew Robinson, called him “Stan” the way Jonathan Lethem had when I emailed him with a similar query, and not only that—they were getting together the very next week, where Clover expected to school him some on economics. For sure there’s plenty of economics in The Ministry for the Future. How much of it is marked by Clover I have no idea. And whaddaya know? At around the time this query came in The Paris Review was publishing Clover’s praise of Robinson’s novel. And as a bonus here’s a Paris Review Q&A about Roadrunner.

Would you tell us about your opinion of baseball movies? Are they realistic? Writing as an outsider and not knowing but realising that any movie made about soccer is usually pretty s*** makes me wonder do you have the same feeling about your national sport — Hugh, West of Ireland

“Realistic”? Having spent approximately 15 minutes of my life in a major league dugout  (profile of underrated Mets shortstop Rafael Santana, 1987 or ’88 I think), I have no way of judging. But I can call to mind many convincing, insightful , and/or entertaining baseball movies. I guess my favorite is the hilarious but also incisive and exciting Moneyball, about assembling a winning Oakland A’s team on a zero budget, based on a book by Michael Lewis, whose The Big Short inspired an even better movie about the 2008 mortgage scam crisis. And just recently Carola and I streamed and enjoyed an impertinent documentary called The Battered Bastards of Baseball, about a nutty yet winning minor-league team constructed from scraps when I forget which major league team pulled its franchise from Portland, Oregon. But there are many others: A League of Their Own about a women’s baseball league; The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, about a team of touring ex-Negro League players; Bang the Drum Slowly, starring my once-great Dartmouth downstairs neighbor Michael Moriarty and a young Robert de Niro and based on a Mark Harris novel; the only slightly watered-down Jackie Robinson biopic 42; the much older b&w Fear Strikes Out, about the great bipolar Red Sox centerfielder Jimmy Piersall; the kiddie comedy The Bad News Bears. For some reason I’ve never seen the renowned Field of Dreams, which I suspected and indeed still suspect of pretentious sentimentality, though I’d probably watch it were it to stream free somewhere. I’ve never seen the Lou Gehrig biopic The Pride of the Yankees either. Is there a Babe Ruth one I’m forgetting?

How do you feel about Dead and Company or just the current rise in popularity of the Grateful Dead? You seem to have been an early fan based on your reviews of their first few records. I know they’ve built a dedicated fanbase over decades but it seems like their presence and influence has risen a lot in musical circles in the last few years imo. — Brian, Atlanta

I was one of the few rock critics who was a big Grateful Dead fan in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—most crits found them too slack, too soft, too arty. I still play the early records I recommended. I think you’re right that they’re finally getting the respect they deserve, and I’m glad. But if you’ll take a look at those CG reviews you’ll find that in my opinion the Dead pretty much stopped making good records as long ago as 1972. Obviously there’s a critical mass of Deadhead cultists who are content to spend their time culling the inexhaustible steamer trunks of live tapes out there, and if you’ll glance at my site you’ll see I’ve singled out a few good ones. But in my opinion those are rare, as I know in part because me and my family more than once patronized a Puerto Rico getaway called the Grateful Bed and Breakfast where Dead tapes played nonstop in the common room without ever engaging my full attention for more than the occasional minute or fondly remembered song and even took a few home on the proprietor’s say-so, none of which stuck with me. Moreover, if I miss a few I still have plenty of Dead to listen to, especially since Carola will occasionally dance around to one. So I can definitely live without Dead and Company myself. I don’t begrudge them their audience, far from it. But especially after that inconsequential Bob Weir album of a few years ago, I feel not the slightest need to keep up. For further reading, take a look at these two pieces, the first collected in Any Old Way You Choose It and the second in Book Reports.

Virgil Thomson: “The whole concept of ‘mass culture’ is obscurantist. Does Shakespeare or Beethoven lose quality through becoming massively available? No. Are populations elevated by being massively subjected to base literature, obscene photographs, and trivial shows? Again, no. Then, to speak of our enormous facilities, through publication and radio, of distributing art, information, and entertainment as a sociological phenomenon to be worried over under the name of ‘mass culture,’ but not really to be changed or controlled, is not a culture concept at all but a political one.” Opinions from “Public Intellectual” Christgau or from “Reigning Dean” Greil? I wonder. — Coco Hannah Eckelberg, Key West, Florida

This is ancient history by now, history of less interest to my friend Greil than to me, just as Thomson is of less interest to me than to my friend John Rockwell, who wrote the introduction to the 1984 paperback edition of the Thomson anthology I’ve never found it in myself to explore. Thomson was a classical composer who was also a renowned music critic; he’s thought of as openminded if not visionary for saying nice things about Gershwin and admiring jazz from a distance I’m too ignorant to estimate. The “mass culture” to which he refers was a big terminological deal in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In 1969 I spent two-three months in Room 315 of the Fifth Avenue library researching the intellectual fad called “mass culture theory” because I conceived myself as a champion of what I preferred to call “popular culture,” which Ellen Willis and I had a contract to write a book about only then we broke up. Greil was an American studies visionary who didn’t know much of that literature when we met; my recollection is that he was barely aware of early popular culture champion Gilbert Seldes although he knew plenty about Seldes’s equally important contemporary Constance Rourke. “Mass culture theory” was so snobbish it was atrophying big-time by the mid ‘70s. The Thomson quote scoffs at an especially nutty iteration in which “high art” was sullied by the very fact of distribution via “mass media” to hoi polloi incapable of appreciating its ineffable spiritual superiority; in addition, it evades the musical complications by going on to specifically disdain only “base literature, obscene photographs, and trivial shows.” Wonder what he thought of I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners. How about Raymond Chandler or, lordy, Grace Metalious. Don’t know, but fear the worst.

The late literary critic Harold Bloom seemed to believe that it was better not to read at all if you were not willing to challenge yourself with books that were intellectually and artistically valuable. He often stated that the promotion of certain popular but less-than-profound books by the cultural critics actually led to the dumbing-down of society. (Specifically, Harry Potter, among others.) The only time it was acceptable to read a populist (i.e. aimed at ordinary people) novel was if it led to reading books of greater merit. Would you apply the same philosophy to music? Do you believe that listening to say, Journey, can actually erode the mind and spirit? Make a person less intelligent? Certainly, some albums, as with some books, are more important and valuable than others. However, is there anything wrong with listening to Oasis even if it does not lead you to the Beatles? Can the existence of Phil Collins music actually be making us worse off? Or is there no comparison at all? — Barry Lane, Mexico, New York

I wouldn’t apply the same philosophy to music because I think it’s utter horseshit applied to books. I’ve never read Harry Potter and probably never will, but only because it’s long and I’d rather read/reread Dickens and not because anything I know about it indicates that it dumbed society down whatever her deplorable prejudices against transgender people. I wouldn’t think of describing the many smart people I know who have read it, some intellectuals but others not, as “dumbed down” or whatever fancier way Bloom would have put it.  On the contrary, my guess would be that it made people smarter whether or not they went on to Flaubert or Yeats or some postmodernist I can’t even name—did so just by persuading them to live vicariously in a world they couldn’t see, smell, or touch. One way I explain the breakdown of American democracy is that my opposite numbers on the right are resistant to abstraction. But I regard that as at least as much a spiritual as an intellectual dilemma. Evangelical Christianity, the intellectual locus of many of today’s fascists-in-training (with a big fat boost from protofascist social media, of course) teaches or tries to teach its adherents to extend their charity—by which I mean feelings of love and compassion rather than the donations that may ensue as well—not just to human beings within their literal physical ambit but human beings they’re aware of at an insuperable physical distance. When I read about gays bashed or women forced to bear children they’re not ready to raise or people of color subject to all manner of concrete physical, social, and economic abuse, I feel for them as imagined individuals, and one institution that taught me to do that was the born-again church I attended with ever-increasing skepticism into my teens. Over the years I’ve heard many stories of individual Christian conservatives helping alien others and as an impecunious young man hitchhiking America in the early ‘60s experienced such acts myself. The disappearance or cooptation of that impulse on a societal level dismays and frightens me.

The recent “Let’s Go Brandon” soundbite that’s become a pathetic dogwhistle just reaffirms what I hope we all already knew: that Trump supporters and the alt-right are by-and-large not only incredibly stupid, but also astoundingly delusional. However, do you ever struggle with not wanting to generalize a massive category of people, even when you’re given nothing but proof-positive of such generalizations? — Nick Jayne, Gray, Maine

I think you’re wrong in several respects. First, I don’t think the “Let’s go Brandon” thing—which I should make clear to those who don’t know, as I’m sure some readers don’t and why should they, has become alt-right code for “Fuck Joe Biden”—is pathetic. It’s a self-evidently effective ploy, one among many, to cheapen political discourse, a fundamental alt-right ploy from Steve Bannon down to Trumpers as stupid as you believe all of them to be, which I do not. Mean, cruel, sometimes purely evil—I’ll take those pejoratives, but only if it’s understood that not all apply in many and maybe even most instances. Some are stupid for sure—there’s stupidity everywhere. But don’t kid yourself, because many are far from it. They mean to subvert electoral democracy, sometimes out of ignorant resentment of often better-educated people like you and me for whom tolerance and compassion are bedrock values, but at least as often out of a well-calculated self-interest that too often includes white supremacist hegemony—which, and this is crucial, does not mean they themselves are devoid of tolerance and compassion in their own day-to-day behavior, as is clear to any honest person who, as I just noted I did, grew up among the born-again Christians who make up a major component of this demographic. They have an all too real chance of getting what they want. Dismissing them as stupid is counter-productive.

Donald Trump? “Evil?” Don’t be silly! He’s just another pushy loudmouth New Yorker. A burg that’s produced thousands of ‘em stretching from Peter Stuyvesant (1592-1672) on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on to yesterday’s New York Post. Trust me. — Cedric Hugo Endter, Lake Bluff, Illinois

Why should I trust you? On the evidence you’re a jerkola with attitude. True, appearances can be deceiving—maybe moving to New York would tone up your brain a little. Having argued that not all Trumpers are therefore evil I will now assert without the slightest hesitation that Donald Trump is. I hope I live to see him die, the sooner the better, and on that day I’ll go out on the streets and whoop and holler. But for the record I don’t like Peter Stuyvesant either. He was worse than many although by no means all of the so-called founding fathers. But at least his heirs planted some gorgeous pre-revolutionary trees my wife and I live close enough to his old homestead to enjoy on a regular basis. Stuyvesant Park surrounds Second Avenue twixt 15th and 17th Streets. Check them out if you’re in the nabe. Our fave is the big elm-I-think in the southwest corner of the eastern park.

Faster Miles an Hour Who Knows Where

Joshua Clover, "Roadrunner" (119 pp., 2021)


I was reading a book as usual while awaiting my turn with my physical therapist, who is not only what my life coach has called “a genius with the strongest hands in the business” but a staunch progressive and knowledgeable music lover, although not necessarily a big reader. Yet before we got down to calisthenics I begged his leave to read him the long paragraph I’d just then encountered as I waited. Nor can I resist reprinting it here, regrettable singular “they” notwithstanding. Its subject is the Jonathan Richman-penned Modern Lovers song the book is about, “Roadrunner.”

“There is a music lover but not a professional musician. They are adjacent to the radio. One day they encounter an ordinary object, a popular object, but they see its beauty, they encounter it with a sort of religious fervor, and they see that the world is filled with these things, that the world is thus itself beautiful. It is a sort of revelation. And they have a need to deliver this message about their love for the world, about the extraordinariness of the ordinary, and they see that a pop song is the way to do this because a pop song is, like a highway, both a perfect conveyance and a perfect example of this sort of ordinary, popular, beautiful thing. So they put this all into a song, a song that is their message to you that they are prepared to drive around the world or at least around the ring road to deliver, and though they are not much of a singer they begin to sing. Now I will make the obvious additions. ‘Roadrunner’ is the incomparable and illimitable version of this story. It has never been told this purely, this relentlessly, lifting out of itself to communicate this one thing. In this regard, lacking a verse-chorus structure, lacking a chord progression, lacking a melody, lacking, it would seem, a working knowledge of what a song is, it is for all that the most conventional song ever recorded.”

Joshua Clover, who wrote this paragraph, is an award-winning poet who teaches English at UC Davis. He is also a brave political activist who’s joined if not led many IMF and World Bank protests, published a book called Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings, survived a rightwing attempt to rob him of his tenure, survived a near-fatal Davis bicycle accident, and way back in 2001 was a serious candidate for Village Voice music editor. After the 2008 crash I deemed it my duty to assign my NYU music students his grim, financially savvy M.I.A.-focused essay “Terrorflu,” which impressed the smarter ones mightily, maybe even taught them something. By alerting me to the Black-Scholes equation for derivatives speculation, which I’d never heard of, it did me, with the result that I downed 10 books about banking for a Barnes & Noble Review piece called “Dark Night of the Quants.” “Terrorflu” was a first pass at Roadrunner. I disagree with Clover about many matters both musical and political. But despite our disagreements, I’m totally down with it.

Duke’s Singles series, which Clover helped develop and this title kicks off, limits each book to 30,000 words and one song, although comparisons to other songs would seem inevitable. True, Clover’s chosen song was released in three YouTube-available versions designated “Roadrunner (Once),” “Roadrunner (Twice),” and “Roadrunner (Thrice),” each of which he goes into. But I’ll leave such not-so-micro distinctions to him while summing up a basic argument that dovetails better with Black-Scholes than you might have figured. “Roadrunner” was written by 21-year-old Boston suburbanite, Velvet Underground superfan, and amateurish bandleader Richman in 1972, the year before the oil crisis befouled the world economy, and thus also the year Black-Scholes began helping oil-deprived speculators transmogrify it from a production economy that exploited workers on principle to a circulation economy that didn’t care if they lived or died. But early on the song compares its historical moment to a still-booming highway, the pioneering U.S. ring road Bostoners know as Route 128. As he drives around in his automobile, Richman identifies the newfound infatuation with the ordinary referenced above as “the spirit of 1956”: the year, Clover calculates, that gave us “the commanding heights of the postwar boom” signaled by Eisenhower’s interstate highway initiative, a moment of planet-wide material plenty never before matched and never again to be equalled. Never ever.

In other words, Richman’s infatuation with ordinary things proves a farewell to their holy plenitude, only he doesn't know that yet and may never truly figure it out, because one stroke of holy genius by no means guarantees more. What Richman almost certainly does know, at some level and probably many, involves the most striking of the three song comparisons Roadrunner unlooses: to Chuck Berry’s late-1955 “Maybellene,” which as Clover notes is a high-ranking candidate for the silly, proud title of first rock and roll record. As someone who’s read more than you or Clover about Chuck Berry, believe me when I say this stuff is high quality. I don’t buy the oft-told tale that “Maybellene” lifts its melody in any meaningful way from Bob Wills’s “Ida Red”—the inflection, timing, and sheer force of the Berry song are so distinct they render note values all but irrelevant. Nor do I believe that the “highway sound” “Maybellene”’s Berry hears as rain cools his engine down is much more than the tires-plus-engine whirr of a car cruising on a silent highway. But Clover’s hypothesis that the “highway sound” Richman hears in “Roadrunner” is “Maybellene” pealing from the radio might just as well be true. So might the more fanciful notion that it was “Maybellene” Johnny B. Goode would later play to the rhythm of a passing train, though Clover misreads exactly who merely sees him (the train’s “drivers”) and who hears him (“people passing by”).

So there you have the foundation. As “the most conventional song ever recorded”—or as Greil Marcus put it decades earlier, “the most obvious song in the world, and the strangest”—Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” encapsulates, emanates, and emulates a lost and indeed illusory moment of incomparable-feigning-illimitable faux-utopian exhilaration. But of course, that doesn’t nearly end the story, the completion of which in Clover’s telling evokes two other songs: “Brimful of Asha,” the only major hit by the long-running U.K.-Sikh-plus-Canadian-Anglo cult band/duo Cornershop and an even more definitive hit by the U.K.-born, East Asia-raised, L.A.-based Sri Lankan Tamil rapper Mathanga “Maya” Arulpragasam, M.I.A. to you. Both, of course, are of East Asian “extraction,” a term I’m glad to note you don’t hear much anymore, which for Clover signifies big, because as he wrote his 30,000 words mid-pandemic he was surely more aware than he preferred that his “Terrorflu” essay found in the circulation economy an all too real-life, all too lethal metaphor in the 2005 “bird flu” epidemic, even if ended up killing millions of birds but not many humans (so far). But what also resonates for me is that both artists are musical touchstones where I live: my Duke Is It Still Good to Ya? collection gathers six pieces about M.I.A. including two little ones, and my wife Carola Dibbell’s 2002 Village Voice Cornershop reflections pack some surprisingly streetwise cultural authority.

Having maxed out at 1500 words in “Terrorflu,” Cornershop gets its own 5000-word chapter in Roadrunner, an oft abstruse one at that: “It’s a little hard at first to hear that ‘Brimful of Asha’ is Tjinder Singh’s version of ‘Roadrunner’ come back around as a global idea,” Clover allows, and no kidding. Nonetheless, he gets the job done, explaining why Cornershop—whose mastermind Tjinder Singh began as a brainy fan of 19th-century agrarian socialist William Morris (and whose father, Carola deduced, might well have been one of the Sikh busmen who won a culturally crucial 1969 strike in Enoch Powell’s Wolverhampton)—deserve to be thought of as “the Postmodern Lovers,” especially once Norman Cook a/k/a Fatboy Slim speeds their signature song up in a chart-topping BPM equivalent of what Jonathan Richman dubbed “faster miles an hour,” pushing “the jangle forward so that the elaborate dance mix nonetheless says I am the simplest of rock songs, all I want is everything.” He also provides a coherent outline of post-1973 economic history nowhere more useful than when it names insurance and real estate as finance’s equals among “the speculative arts.”

Which brings us both back to our innocent beginning and forward into a perilous future with the greatest album of the 21st century, M.I.A.’s 2007 Kala. Its breakthrough megahit is the Clash-sampling “Paper Planes,” its playlist sleeper the kiddie-spiked “Mango Pickle Down River,” its Clover exhibit the Donald Rumsfeld slatewiper “Bird Flu,” and its neatly thematic opener the equally confrontational “Bamboo Banger,” which announces itself with tricky tabla-and-traps over which M.I.A. intones “Road runner road runner/Going hundred mile per hour/Road runner road runner/Going hundred mile per hour/With your radio on/With your radio on.” Clover says much worth pondering about this album before he returns just as fruitfully in his final chapter to “Roadrunner” itself.

But first I’m proud to report that I was the rare New Yorker who caught the Modern Lovers early: August 15, 1972, at Nassau County’s My Father’s Place, preceding, I swear, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins of “I Put a Spell on You” fame, who got one bemused graf of a Newsday review otherwise devoted to the openers and 22-year-old “Jonathan Richmond.” I knew they were big in Boston and noted how much Jonathan recalled the Velvet Underground: “a hard, spasmodic style with flash guitar to match.” I’m pretty sure “Roadrunner” got my attention, but I didn’t mention that one. Instead I admired how unhippie the Modern Lovers were, singling out a finale where Jonathan implored a skeptical crowd to “scream along” on “I’m Straight.” “Straight”—in late-hippie 1972 that was a kick. Because where Clover celebrates how percipiently Richman straddled two economic epochs, I’m ­often although far from always impressed by how stalwartly Jonathan maintains his innocence. As I wrote once, he splits the difference between a cute kid and a kid who knows adults think kids are cute.

In what is now a long adult work life, which these days he seems to split between music and selling pizza ovens, Richman has been deeply charming sometimes and icky others, and is strikingly smart in Todd Haynes’s new Velvet Underground documentary. As recently as 2014 he put across the fey, half-Spanish No Me Quejo De Mi Estrella, and the small joys that populate 1983’s willfully minor Jonathan Sings!, with “That Summer Feeling” merely the standout, aspire to a quiet spiritual sustenance with few parallels in pop music or anywhere else. So I was gratified to find Clover’s final chapter praising a close relative of this strategy: Richman as he got older, he says, was “the most amateur of amateurs,” doing “whatever he could to stay adjacent to the radio without disappearing into it. Maybe someday his name would be in lights, nah, maybe not.” Yet rather than distracting Clover from his political purpose, this concession, if that's even what it is, may well be one reason he quotes Marx to begin his final paragraph: “Now, when everything is at an end, give me your hand, so that we may begin again from the beginning.”

I should add that when my PT session was over, my physical therapist grabbed his phone and took a picture of Roadrunner’s cover. By the time my life coach had her next appointment, he’d bought the book.

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