Xgau Sez: January, 2021

Going underground with movies and the Velvets, saying yes to sampling and no to Sidney Bechet and the War on Drugs, and putting "Brown Sugar" out to pasture.

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I was delighted to read in Going Into the City of your experience with Lenny Lipton screening underground films in New York in the ‘60s. (And thanks for mentioning the wonderful Kuchar brothers.) That period and milieu of filmmaking is inspiring to me and I’d be grateful for other memories you could share. I figure you must have had contact with Jonas Mekas, although if I’m right your time at the Voice came after he left. This brings me to ask also about the Velvet Underground in their early days, since they were so involved with underground film. Were you aware of them during their circa 1965 Angus MacLise phase, when they accompanied film screenings? Or perhaps the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows where the Velvet Underground and Nico played alongside Warhol’s films? — Andy Ditzler, Atlanta

Actually, I did rub shoulders occasionally with Mekas during my 1969-1971 freelance tour with the Voice, but only because he knew me from the Popular Photography story my high school pal Lipton assigned and I interviewed him for, as I should have. He was the kingpin of that world and a genuinely remarkable man in many ways, but not one who had much use for me once my pop proclivities were on the table—he had no interest in “movies” at all. So while I was happy to help Lenny run the Eventorium’s Friday-night film series up on West 100th Street, and sat through many hours of experimental cinema from Stan Brakhage (always interesting, occasionally great) to Gregory Markopoulos (horrible and subsequently withdrawn from the so-called New American Cinema canon and indeed circulation by the egomaniacal Markopoulos himself) because underground movies did continue to interest me, it was the New American Cinema’s meager pop wing I wrote about: in particular the Kuchars, who remained friendly with Lenny after they all relocated to the Bay Area, and Stan VanDerBeek. My first glimpse of the Velvet Underground was at a St. Marks Place club called the Electric Circus, I believe under a Plastic Exploding Inevitable rubric that featured the whip-dancing of Gerard Malanga, who didn’t impress me (at all). I think this preceded the release of their first album, which took me a while anyway; it was album three that truly converted me. I witnessed their legendary 1970 Max’s run multiple times. Lenny, who became a successful inventor specializing in stereoscopic imaging, remains a friend although not a close one; a photo of me he took when I was 20 has appeared on this site. I hope to see him the next time I get to Los Angeles, which I hope is relatively soon. Knowing someone for 63 years is worth celebrating, believe me.

What would you say to an older musician if they were hesitant about giving permission to a younger artist who wants to sample their music? — Zach, Washington, D.C.

That obviously depends on many things—how prominent the sample is, whether or not the originator of the music likes the way it sounds in its new context, and what your commercial ambitions and prospects are, to name just three. At the very least you can offer to acknowledge the sample in your packaging and agree to give him a small piece of whatever profits ensue from the recording, which these days are of course negligible much more often than not but you never know and the originator probably knows even less. Plus you should argue that sampling is a practice that has real artistic merit, recontextualizing both new music and the musical history sampling explicitly acknowledges. I miss it terribly myself—a big reason trap generally fails to reach me. I wrote a piece about sampling that’s never been collected, though I regret not shoehorning it into Is It Still Good to Ya?

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One musician you’ve never reviewed was New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet. With his improvisational prowess and warm tone, I would think that an Armstrong fan like yourself would have recommended one or two of the albums in his immense  discography. Is his singular style of music not in your wheelhouse and if not why? — Sam, Ridgewood, New York

I’ve asked myself this question for years, gave up on the four-CD RCA comp The Victor Sessions: Master Takes 1932-43 a while ago but still spun the single-disc Ken Burns Jazz once in a while. This I’ve done three-four more times since your question arrived, but still concluded that for someone of my musical education his soprano sax was not distinctive enough sonically, improvisationally, or conceptually to demand my attention. Not that I’m skeptical of his reputation; far from it. And the music sounded pleasant enough. To double-check, I made sure Bechet was also within earshot of household jazzbo Carola Dibbell, who has intensified and helped articulate my response to Coltrane, Davis, Rollins, and Reinhardt, among others. So this morning before I sat down to write I asked whether she noticed the old jazz I’d been playing and she told me she had. So why hadn’t she mentioned it, as she so often does? “I thought it sounded good, but not stop the presses.” So that’s probably it for that.

I admit to bias but could you re-review War on Drugs and Kurt Vile and the Violators at some point? I remember one comment you made on Granduciel’s songwriting and something about KV with CB but that’s all. They are both incredible live bands and all-around great supporters of the scene here in Philly. — All Best, Chris

Sorry, but I’m not going back there. Retrospectively, I figure the War on Drugs to be in a class with the 1975, an even more admired band I have no use for either. And Vile I’ve tried and tried with—as with Guided by Voices, that’s the seminal example, he’s a revered songsmith whose oeuvre has never made the slightest dent on my auriculum. Both may well be great live bands and scene stalwarts, but as a stalwart of that scene yourself you’re more prejudiced than I am, because those songs have had a very different kind of chance to dent your auriculum. Enjoy if you like, more power to you—people like what they like, that’s fundamental. Courtney Barnett obviously did, and must have helped in some way you’re better equipped to suss out than I am:

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice [Matador, 2017]
Fetching guitars, nice goofy vibe, songwriting dominated by spaced-out drip Vile rather than Barnett’s distracted depressive (“Over Everything,” “Continental Breakfast”) **

As for the War on Drugs, here’s my scholarly commentary in an interview I did with Dan Weiss at Spin to promote Going Into the City. I’m the first speaker:

What do we make of the War on Drugs? What the fuck is going on? Why do people adore this? I’m asking you here.

I’m thinking now that I have the time [to replay it], we’ll see how that goes, maybe it’ll go well, it might really be tough. But I was thinking of doing a week where I just do the War on Drugs and then, what’s her name, FKA twigs. I’m not actually convinced that those records are as . . .

Bad as they seem?
Skimpy as I think they are. I mean, I haven’t gone to that level yet. War on Drugs sounds like, I mean, has anybody else said it’s blanded out U2? That’s what it is. Has it been compared to U2?

It’s been compared to Springsteen and Tom Petty a lot.
That’s ridiculous! That’s fucking ridiculous! I mean, Tom Petty writes real lyrics. And so does Bono, don’t get me wrong, but not the way that Springsteen and Petty do. This guy, whatever his name is, can’t write lyrics at all. He can’t write fuckin’ lyrics! You know that’s a very important part of a musical gestalt. It’s like if Springsteen or Petty buries his lyrics . . .  boy, that’s nutty.

I am curious, what is your typical interaction with music when you write about music? Do you play your writing object in the background, or keep the environment quiet but just pull out moments that will help with your writing, or even play something else in background? — Minghan Yan, New York City

As I believe (and hope) most critics do, I almost invariably play whatever I’m writing about as I’m writing. You never know when some error will reveal itself or some new idea pop up—plus it makes it easier to use the remote to pin down or double-check a crucial detail.

I’m curious to know your thoughts on the Stones’ “Sweet Black Angel,” and if those thoughts have changed over the years. The irony of tracks like “Brown Sugar” is pretty obvious, but “Sweet Black Angel” in particular, with Jagger’s enunciation and usage of the n-word, has always baffled me. Just wondering what your take on this is. — Jeremy, Missouri

Politically and every other way, I find “Sweet Black Angel” far more attractive in retrospect than “Brown Sugar,” which I decided should be put out to pasture after I saw Bob Dylan cover it in 2003 and (less problematically, I admit) the Stones themselves roll it out at a 2005 concert. Irony be damned, its representation of cross-racial master-to-slave lust is far too realistic—too easy to interpret one-dimensionally as an explicit and unembarrassed articulation of a specific variety of lust. N-word or no n-word, “Sweet Black Angel” can’t be misprised that way even if you’re not fully aware that this “angel” is in fact a historical personage: the crucial Black feminist radical and indeed Communist Angela Davis. As the song presents her, this woman isn’t in anybody’s bed. She’s in a court of law even if you’re not hip enough to know every detail—a star-level celebrity whose picture is worth hanging on your wall whose freedom is in jeopardy as a result of the peril her Black brothers still suffer. The Genius transcription is a mite sloppy, but the Genius commentary isn’t: “one of the few overtly political Stones tunes.”

Continuing Education

Sixty-seven years of love lessons

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I was chuffed to learn that 80-year-old country singer Jeannie Seely had come from nowhere to release an album called American Classic because Seely was the first Nashville artist I ever wrote about. It was 1967, my second Esquire column, when I was 25 and knew zip about country music and Seely was 27 and riding her first and greatest hit: “Don’t Touch Me,” a hipper-than-thou pick on the artist gossip network at Max’s Kansas City. The composer was Hank Cochran of “I Fall to Pieces” and “Make the World Go Away” renown, who thought Seely so right for this hot song that he made her his fourth wife in 1969. Sweet, lean, intent, with just a hint of vibrato and zero drawl, Seely implores: “Your hand is like a torch each time you touch me/The look in your eye pulls me apart/Don’t open the door to heaven if I can’t come in/Don’t touch me if you don’t love me sweetheart.” That’s full third of a lyric about an erotic bond, making perfectly clear, almost, that between these two, a mere touch can open the gate to a paradise on the far side of romantic bliss—a lyric where a kiss will soon turn into something more sexual and more serious. “Don’t love me then act as if we’ve never kissed,” Seely insists, which reinforced by the slight quiver in that vibrato establishes that what “love” means in that entreaty is carnal as well as emotional.

Cochran and Seely’s marriage lasted a decade or so, and a few years after they split she wedded a Nashville attorney in a durable union during which she’s rerecorded “Don’t Touch Me” at least twice. But where at 27 her vocal aura was, like the lyric, fresh as opposed to innocent, fresh is beyond her aging timbre on both 2005’s 20 All Time Greatest Hits and now American Classic. That predictable observation has a surprise ending, however, because against all odds Seely sounds decisively cleaner and clearer on the album she released at 80 than the one she released at 65. We’ve heard enough eightysomething albums by now to know that voices don’t work that way. Even singers with the luck, technique, and lifestyle discipline to keep their instruments fit at 65 get creaky if not necessarily decrepit as their late seventies and early eighties encroach—you can hear the saliva deficit building, the telltale croak staking its claim. But where at 65 Seely sounded her age, on the new album she sounds up to 20 years under 65 instead of 15 over. And though reviewers have been too discreet or clueless to point this out, its vocal vitality has to be one reason the word-of-mouth on this album got loud enough to reach me.

Given how cannily Seely varies the maturity of her timbre and affect, that’s not the whole of it, either. Dolly Parton’s 1980 country smash “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)” sounds quite grown up, as if the old in “old flame” means exactly what it says; the jaunty new Penn Pennington-Mitch Ballard opener “So Far So Good” and a savvy version of Paul McCartney’s “Dance Tonight” are both almost perky in slightly different ways. Taken slow and reflective without a hint of innocence, this “Don't Touch Me” is far more complex and convincing than the rather rote 2005 remake. Instead a song with an uncanny thematic resemblance to “Don’t Touch Me” is the one she takes youngest—as young as she can, say 45 or so. Although there was certainly an almost impudent charm to this choice, that I knew she was in fact 80 only accentuated its peculiarity, because the strange and suspect Sammy Cahn-Gene De Paul standard “Teach Me Tonight” would seem to voice the romantic requirements of someone so much younger than 45 that why bother.

“Teach Me Tonight” began its public life as a late-‘54 smash for the Cuban-American DeCastro Sisters, all of whom were around 30 when their ship came in; although I must have heard it as a 12-year-old radio nut, I recall it not at all. Yet I knew the song well when I encountered it on An American Classic without remembering how, so I checked my iTunes, where I quickly found renditions by iconic songbirds Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, who won a very posthumous Grammy for it in 1999. I also recalled Phoebe Snow’s belted 1976 version and realized I’d heard the song plenty on underrated 2014 oldies albums by Bette Midler and Aretha Franklin. Perhaps excepting the DeCastro Sisters’, some of these versions are terrific and all are fine with me; De Paul’s melody is so fetching that Errol Garner recorded a typically percussive piano version and the Ray Brown Trio a typically bassy one, and that’s just two of many. Tiny-voiced piano woman Blossom Dearie cut a singularly shrewd take; pre-fame Amy Winehouse applied an impressive array of affectations to a live performance; four-foot-nine belter Brenda Lee cut it at 15 with nary a hint that it was more than a catchy number with vocables attached. But due to how subtly Seely shades her maturity and indeed her age on her new album, her version weirded me out a little.

Most readers probably suspect from the title alone that the song might have generationally complex-to-problematic overtones, and some I’m sure are certain it does. But I doubt many know it by heart, so here are the lyrics. The A part begins: “Did you say I’ve got a lot to learn/Well don’t think I’m trying not to learn/Since this is the perfect spot to learn/Teach me tonight” and continues “Starting with the ABC of it/Right down to the XYZ of it/Help me solve the mystery of it/Teach me tonight.” Then there’s a B part: “The sky’s a blackboard high above you/If a shooting star goes by/I’ll use that star to write I love you/A thousand times across the sky.” Then for a climax, so to speak, it’s back to the creepiest A part: “One thing isn’t very clear my love/Should the teacher stand so near my love/Graduation’s almost here my love/Teach me tonight.” After an instrumental break, most versions including Seely’s return to the B part, just the second half usually, and then repeat the problematic final stanza.

As an unswerving fan of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” I say that post-MeToo “Should the teacher stand so near” feels wrong just as language—we know too well that too many teachers have stood too near to their students, especially female ones. And not having heard “Teach Me Tonight” in years, I found that for Seely to feign not youth but all the youthfulness she could muster at what every listener knows is age 80 accentuated the song’s rhetorical slippage toward a far from trivial danger zone—one we’ve had mapped over and over in the courts and public prints for the past five years or so. It made the whole thing feel more suspect than Seely or Curb Records or you or I would prefer. But it also made the song more suspect than Sammy Cahn probably deserves. Because I cheated a little when I quoted the lyric at the top of this paragraph—cheated by cutting the suspect line off before its last two words, which are “my love.” “My love” isn’t a free pass—many victims of child abuse are groomed to believe they love their abusers. But it suggests a parity between the two actors in this little drama; it implies some measure of shared agency. So while it’s right to observe that Seely’s trick of cutting her vocal age in half had the effect of accentuating suspect tendencies in a strange lyric, that observation is less than absolutely damning in the end.

What’s less salient just because the song’s MeToo dimensions are so out front is another variant of sexism: whether it’s premature Brenda Lee doing her elders’ bidding or sexpot Dinah Washington putting her erotic agenda on display, the song always assumes that the man is the teacher. With almost 50 years of monogamy under my belt, my expertise is limited, but that’s not how it was for me: with a few exceptions I remember fondly, I learned more from the women I bedded than they from me, most importantly that because all bodies and temperaments are different the learning had best be mutual if it’s to go anywhere at all. It’s no surprise that with one exception, an all too calm James Taylor and an Al Jarreau whose innocent act evaporates when his carnal self ignites his award-winning pipes are the only male versions to have made a dent.

The exception, however, is a big one: Frank Sinatra. That’s right—absurdly, Sinatra too has covered “Teach Me Tonight,” with Quincy Jones conducting no less, and initially I was appalled. Frank Sinatra? That hooker-hiring, celebrity-porking, Nancy Reagan-linked dog? The idea was so grotesque it left Seely’s modest miscalculation back at the starting gate. Only as I kept listening I was soon reminded that Sammy Cahn was a Sinatra buddy and one of his favorite lyricists. So it seems that Cahn devised some words to indicate that a world-famous ass man had taken up this song of innocence. “I’ve played love scenes in a flick or two/And I’ve also met a chick or two/But I still can learn a trick or two/Teach me tonight.” Which would be enough to get Frank off the hook, really. But the two buddies go on, providing what amounts to a full alternate version: “I who thought I knew the score of it/Kind of think I should know much more of it/Off the wall, the bed, the floor of it/Hey-y-y teach me tonight.” Then a B part: “The midnight hour comes slowly creeping/When there’s no one there but you/There must be more to life than sleeping/Single in a bed for two.” And finally: “What I need most is post gradu-ate/What I feel’s hard to articulate/If you want me to matriculate/You’d better teach me tonight.” And then, since they’re rolling, uh-oh, a bonus coda: “What d’ya get for lessons?/Teach me come on and teach me/Teach me tonight.”

Really, what are we to conclude? How about ring-a-ding-ding?

Doing It and Doing It and Doing It Well

Dale Cockrell, "Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York 1840-1917" (2019, 270 pp.)

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Dale Cockrell is a Vanderbilt musicology professor emeritus whose 1997 Demons of Disorder is among the finest books on what it subtitles “Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World.” Although Cockrell grew up in Louisville and taught mostly in Nashville, Demons of Disorder takes place principally in New York, where in 1843 the short-lived Virginia Minstrels kicked off a fad for the laff-a-minute blackface bands that proved a staple of American show business for the rest of the 19th century and beyond. The book’s star exhibit is its extended portrait of blackface minstrel, concert singer, newspaper fly-by-nighter, marathon walker, and all-around hustler George Washington Dixon. But it’s just as memorable for how stubbornly, compassionately, and skillfully Cockrell mines court records and old newspapers to document an impoverished neighborhood in a New York where race-mixing alarmed the rich far more than it did the “common” classes, some of whom intermarried in defiance of state “amalgamation” laws and went to prison for it.

After he left Vanderbilt, border-stater Cockrell relocated to the secular humanist hellhole I call home, and wrote his Demons of Disorder follow-up, Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music and Dance in New York, 1840-1917. I began it looking forward to learning more about Demons of Disorder’s musical world, and for 40 pages or so it delivered. There’s yet more on the endlessly outrageous Dixon, who deserves it, but the revelation is three other journalists. One is future Virginia Minstrels manager George Wooldridge, who accompanied Charles Dickens on his multiple nights exploring musically happening joints in the Five Points neighborhood of the deep Lower East Side, which Wooldridge recounted in detail and Dickens would condense into a single incomparable one-page description of the doomed Black dance genius William Henry “Juba” Lane and his fiddle-tambourine-footstomp accompaniment, a high point of the fiction star’s fact-filled American Notes. Another is rock critic in potentia George Goodrich Foster, a trained flautist and born bohemian who documented the lowdown, interracial Five Points scene with equal parts colorful exaggeration and ingrained respect. And then there’s a risque chronicler who was probably pulp novelist George Thompson but signed himself “Asmodeus,” after the Zoroastrian “demon king of lust.”

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Soon Asmodeus leads Cockrell’s narrative down a more scandalous path signalled by the lead sentence of his chapter’s final paragraph: “Prostitution in midcentury New York was an obvious, even accepted, part of the New York landscape.” Sure Cockrell’s home subject remains the “wild music pouring out of brothels, saloons, and dance halls.” But as the rest of the book bore down on the sex business, I sometimes found myself zoning out. In the Five Points chapter dancing couples hop in and out of bunks that line the saloon or retire to back rooms, jolly rolls in the hay I found both warming and charming whatever their cash basis. But once vice crusaders replace ribald journalists as Cockrell’s primary sources, the pleasures he describes dry up—the sex is all about the money, because sex for money was the target of obsessed bluenoses like postal inspector Anthony Comstock and Presbyterian clergymen Charles Henry Parkhurst, both of whom campaigned against not just sexual freedom but women’s rights for four decades ending shortly before World War I.

Of course music was featured not just in relatively respectable “concert saloons” but in joints regularly designated “dives,” a newly coined noun that began its life as the verb reporters used to describe their descent into cellar bars like those Dickens explored—bars where dancing was expected to lead to the harder stuff. But in Cockrell’s rendering of the later 19th century, musical details are scant. Scattered mentions indicate that pianos usually came with the territory, singing too; violins often and accordions occasionally joined in; if not minstrel tambourines then at least foot-stomping must often have accentuated the percussive bent of piano bangers so barbaric they left vice-fighting investigators lost for words. Race-mixing among musicians certainly occurs, and white singers who specialize in minstrel material cork up as in days of old. But for the detectives Comstock and Parkhurst put in motion these details were incidental. Their job was to feign sexual interest (not, their paymasters hoped, merely suppress it, and never, heaven forfend, indulge it) in the “pretty little waiter girls” and dollar-a-dance partners they talked up until the woman named her price and the hired dick squirmed out of the deal, often by pleading VD.

Some of the statistics the crusaders came up with are dumbfounding. Supposedly 12 percent of urban Union Civil War veterans bore syphilis or gonorrhea scars in this pre-antibiotic era. And a relatively authoritative report estimated that by 1912 15,000 prostitutes turning an average of 10 tricks a day were working in Manhattan. The borough’s population in 1910 was two million, half it presumably male and let’s say a fifth pre-pubescent, although by then the subway was bringing in so many commuters we can figure a total of a million potential customers all told, maybe more. Still, we’re asked to conclude that some hundred fifty thousand of these guys, one in seven or maybe eight or even nine were buying sex every day. That’s a whole lot of rent-a-fuck. Were the Victorian mores of post-Puritan America so stifling that marital sex dried up once its procreative function was over and done with?

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Cockrell too raises his eyebrows at these numbers, and by means of sources ranging from official reports to the occasional magazine piece to Stephen Crane’s Maggie, A Girl of the Streets does what he can to humanize the specific women and girls who chose or fell into the business. But I’m thankful that when he reaches the 20th century the musical details start picking up again. By now there’s a recognizable pop music business including the songsmiths of West 28th Street’s Tin Pan Alley as well as primitive sound recording and even motion picture technology. Thought of as a theatrical specialty, the originally French cancan was a dancehall commonplace in New York, and by the turn of the century what was called “tough dancing” was all the rage in countless New York City venues, especially those frequented by the young; there’s even film of it. African-American-derived “animal dances” like the bunny hug and the turkey trot were all the rage, although Cockrell fails to note the polite and soon universal fox trot African-American bandleader James Reese Europe devised for dance superstars Vernon and Irene Castle.

In fact, although he never says as much, an underlying implication of Cockrell's argument would seem to be that the dancehall crackdowns the sex-sniffing Committee of Fourteen had succeeded in making law by 1917 (law that included severe restrictions on interracial socializing) created a virtual vacuum that made the rock and roll of the late ‘50s look more unprecedented than it actually was. To an extent, this is true, though given the Charleston craze of the Prohibition ‘20s and the lindy-hopping geniuses of the Harlem ‘30s I’d say that what distinguished rock and roll was how demotic and purely rhythm-driven it was, not how wild or even sexual. Nor do I give much credence to the Darwinian reflections on mating rituals Cockrell ties his historiography up with. But with sex and popular music joined at the hip in what looks like perpetuity, his book is guaranteed to help us parse what that means for a long time to come.

Xgau Sez: December, 2020

The art of storytelling and album covers. Also: consensus meters, epic curation, and a protest playlist.

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I’ve been quite taken by Serengeti’s Ajai—the characters, attention to detail, and humanity that runs through it have quickly made it one of my favourite hip hop albums. It got me thinking, who are the best storytellers in music? Dylan and Leonard Cohen of course go without saying. I grew up with my dad playing Ice-T in the car, and I’ve grown to appreciate the hyperliterate thug vignettes of Ghostface Killah and the Notorious B.I.G., the working-class character studies of Ian Dury and Randy Newman, and the masterful, first-person quote, unquote “short film” good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar. Would you count these among the best storytellers, and who am I missing? Please don’t hesitate to suggest less literal storytellers, I love tangential lyricists like MF Doom, Mellow Gold-era Beck, and my favourite, Lil Wayne (none of those specifically would qualify though, I'm sure you’d agree). — Ian Carroll, Skerries, Dublin, Ireland.

I must say that I don’t think of Dylan or Cohen as storytellers however many narrative and putatively autobiographical elements enter their songs, though obviously there are exceptions—Dylan’s “Ballad of Hattie Carroll” leaps to mind, Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel.” I think of them as songwriters—just listening as I write to my beloved “Brownsville Girl,” and even that’s on the cusp at best. And while there are obviously plenty of exceptions in hip-hop—Ghostface Killah’s “260” has always been a favorite of mine, though when I relistened while following along on Genius I realized I’d never fully figured the story out—it’s generally rappers’ rhetoric and diction and sheer musicality that pull me in. But on the other hand there are great storytellers you don’t mention—try the Drive-By Truckers’ “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife,” for instance. The very best are two artists who’ve actually put out albums with “storyteller” in the title. One is a flat-out comp, Tom T. Hall’s The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Storyteller (start with “Salute to a Switchblade,” then “Homecoming”). The other’s a live best-of of sorts, Todd Snider’s Live: The Storyteller (“KK Rider Story” we were just enjoying for the umpteenth time last week), although “You Got Away With It” on The Devil You Know is the greatest of all. And hey, ever listen to Woody’s Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre”? Killer, as they say. Even “Ludlow Massacre” is a distinct runner-up.

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Hello Bob! I’ve been reading you for 40 years—from sitting with the VV in my hometown library reading room til’ now.  But I think I might be about to stop and it is not because I don’t learn from you anymore: I still get loads of great music tips from you! But your casual cruelty about people with substance abuse problems is, I fear, going to drive me away. Recently I tried to convince myself that you were just an old guy who needed some help catching up on current usage: but then I reminded myself that this is a 40+ year problem with you—a feature, as they say, and not a bug. From your dismissal of James Taylor as an “addict, pure and simple” to last month’s description of Skip Spence as a “hopeless druggie” this seems to be a cruel and conscious worldview. All those years on the Lower East Side and nobody has been able to break through to you about substance abuse as illness (very often constituted as dual diagnosis with other mental illness)? Anything you want to share on this? — Jeffrey Melnick, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Backatcha, Jeff—still recall proudly how impressed you were when I biked something like nine miles on no sleep after getting lost at Roskilde in 2012, when I was 70. Thousands of books addressing questions like yours have been written, and I’m not about to start one here. But having affirmed that of course addiction is a disease, I’ll begin by pointing out that you misread the Taylor review: the addiction is to the road and the Holiday Inn. At the time I wrote it (I suspect retrospectively in 1980 for the first Consumer Guide book rather than in 1971 when the album came out), I had no inkling of Taylor’s weakness for heroin. Then I’ll point out that while all diseases are arguably subject to interventions of the human will and/or spirit, this is much truer of addiction than, for instance, cancer, which Norman Mailer used to preach had a psychosomatic dimension, not to mention Covid 19. It’s clearly too bad for Skip Spence and particularly his four kids that he just couldn’t kick, and hard not to suspect because it’s easy enough to recall that portions of Spence’s fanbase actively admired how wasted he was. It’s the romanticization of addiction that I abhor, and that has been all too common since the bebop days. But let me add that from Charlie Parker to Kurt Cobain, I’ve actively admired the music of many addicts, and add that one of these is John Coltrane, who kicked heroin cold turkey circa 1957 and became a much greater musician thereafter.

In the November Xgau Sez you brought up the American Epic soundtracks, which reminded me that in your original review for that record it sounded like you were also looking forward to digging into the American Epic: The Sessions album. From what I can tell, you enjoyed several other albums from the American Epic collection but you never reviewed Sessions. Am I correct in assuming that means it fell short for you? The sessions film was my favorite episode of the documentary, and while the romanticism of the reconstructed 1920s recording system (along with the fact that I’m a Jack White homer) no doubt influences my opinion, I’m also a big fan of the album. I’m curious to hear whether you got around to the Sessions album (and/or film), and if so, what you thought of it. — Benjamin Schroeder, Grand Rapids, Michigan

As someone who isn’t a Jack White anything, I couldn’t even get through the sessions album—don’t recall the details anymore, just said enuf. Nor do I much remember the sessions episode of the documentary. I think the sharp-eared musical curation and cinematic historical digging of that project are both extraordinary. The John Hurt and Memphis Jag Band stuff knocked my socks off, and the blues CD Bernard MacMahon assembled is my favorite such comp—starts with the ahistorical (because late rather than early ‘30s) Robert Johnson, what a stroke.  The “commercial” gestures of the session stuff, on the other hand, did nothing for me—less interpretation than exploitation, as I recall with no intention of checking. And one more thing: the documentary itself can be streamed at Amazon Prime. Very highly recommended.

I was curious about your opinion on RateYourMusic.com, an online collaborative metadata database of musical and non-musical releases which can be catalogued, rated and reviewed by users. Did you know about it? Did you use it some time? What’s your general opinion about this kind of site? — Eduardo Mujica, Colombia

I don’t think there’s any harm in such enterprises, but given that I don’t even credit Metacritic scores that much, it shouldn’t surprise either of us that I don’t expect to be going there often. For you I would assume it’s different, since one reason you’re here is almost certainly my half century of grading albums and this is an alternative. Thing is, for me grading is by now an ingrained skill—I’ve learned how to recognize, analyze, and describe in words my own aesthetic responses and also know how to build into such articulations a quantum of “objectivity.” These raters are amateurs. Were I to learn that something had, I don’t know, a 4.5 on RateYourMusic (and wasn’t metal or some other genre I just don’t care about) I’d probably check it out, although when I gave the site a glance I didn’t even run into any 4.0s. So two pieces of advice. One, Metacritic is probably a more useful consensus meter. Two, I’d bet without checking back that RateYourMusic is 95 percent male if not higher. All this rating stuff is very boy in a time when women are nearing parity in musical quality-quantity even though men still dominate every phase of the industry. Only P.S.: there are now many more women critics than there were just five years ago, another reason to check Metacritic first.

In your review of Wish You Were Here, you say “the cover/liner art is worthy of all the stoned raps it has no doubt already inspired.” This got me wondering how important you consider cover/liner art as a visual impression of an album, and how vinyl to CD to streaming may have diminished this effect—if any—over the years. For better or for worse, once I see the cover of an album, it’s hard to unsee it as part of the “image” the music forms. Have you ever had this happen? — Joe, London, UK

I agree that covers matter—even the digital-only albums that have proliferated in this era almost always come with a square illo that will print out for the downloader who burns (in color if that’s how the downloader rolls, as most presumably do and I unfortunately do not). How well most are remembered is another matter. Forty-five years after the fact I had no idea what Wish You Were Here looked like, and when I pulled the vinyl LP out of my shelves also had no idea what I was talking about musically in that review—not an A minus I don’t think for those anal-retentives who are keeping score. Maybe the heads were agog about the cover—it was still a pot-smoking era and Floyd was of  that cultural persuasion. But by then I’d pretty much quit and was never much of a head to begin with, though I do recall a special fascination with the cover of the first Asylum Choir album, good luck finding that one—psychedelic toilet paper as I recall. (Sez an Amazon commentator: “When this album came out, nobody had heard of Leon Russell or Mark Benno, and thye original cover was a toilet paper roll.” (Misspelled “the” in original.) In general I think the answer for me, as someone who probably owns 50 times as many albums as you do, is a simple no. That doesn’t mean it isn’t different for those whose collections are smaller, who have certain records they handle all the time. It also doesn’t mean I can’t see the covers of RamonesMisterioso, and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in my mind’s eye. Great covers all, and very different.

At risk of coming across as naively thinking that the devastation is over simply because he’s been voted out, I was wondering if you would care to put together a playlist—or other kind of list—of your favourite Trump-targeting songs from the last four or so years. Not sure there’s a whole canon there, and am sure I’ve picked up on some dissatisfaction from you at times that there haven’t been more Trump songs, but there’s probably a good selection. Off the top, Oberg, Snider, Hamell and Superchunk have all contributed some quality material. It’d be good to see your top picks. — Isaac Iszchak, Norfolk, UK

Sorry to say my dissatisfaction remains in place. Unless I’m misremembering, in fact, neither Hamell nor Superchunk, gratifyingly political though they’ve been, has contributed anything specific to Trump unless Hamell’s commander-in-chief-assassinating “Too High” counts. To Oberg’s “Nothing Rhymes With Orange” I’d add “Care” even though it doesn’t name names either. YG’s “FDT” remains relevantly cathartic more than four years after it was released; Public Enemy’s “State of the Union” is just as explicit and more detailed even though it doesn’t utter his cursed name; A Tribe Called Quest finished off We Got It From Here with the otherwise inexplicit “The Donald.” And after that I’m reduced to comedy albums, first Tim Heidecker’s Too Dumb for Suicide (my two favorites both involve shitting: “Imperial Bathroom” and “Sentencing Day’) and then Harry Shearer’s better researched The Many Moods of Donald Trump (“Covid 180,” “I Never Knew Him,” “Very Stable Genius”). As an alternative you can go to Spotify and search for Joe Levy’s “Uprising 2020” playlist. For me racism remains primary. Even more than the long-term economic devastation wreaked by the greed of the superrich and their legislative minions, the legacy of chattel slavery remains my nation’s crippling original sin and hasn’t been so great for Britain either. The songs Levy put together in June hit that truth from as many angles as there are artists to calibrate them. [Eeek—PS. Because this Q&A was inadvertently deleted during the editing process and had to be quickly recreated, I failed to finish with the first and still greatest of the anti-Trump songs: YG’s “FDT,” released March, 2016 and killer to this day.]

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