Diplomatic Ties

On the first rock critic Secretary of State

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Shortly after we learned that our next president had selected someone named Antony Blinken as his Secretary of State came an email from Greil Marcus with a subject line I admired so much I quoted it on Twitter: “First rock critic Secretary of State. But probably only 73rd Harvard one.” Inside was a link to Blinken’s review of the last and least pious of Bob Dylan’s three “Christian” albums, Shot of Love, in the October 3, 1981 Harvard Crimson. Only 19 at the time, sometime musician and future Harvard magna Blinken quickly became a big deal at the Crimson, editing its arts magazine as well as contributing many political pieces. But I’ve located only three additional album reviews, all from 1982: Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask March 19Marshall Crenshaw September 25, the Who’s It’s Hard October 2.

Those four albums split into pairs. Dylan and the Who were ‘60s heroes trying to keep their bearings as the ‘70s dwindled into an ever-receding past. Both failed. Dylan followed his Christian trinity with four skeptically-reviewed secular albums and two worse live ones before righting himself somewhat with 1989’s Oh Mercy. And the Who simply threw it in—after It’s Hard, which Blinken reckoned “triumphantly reaffirms the power and relevance of Townshend's music” and most reckoned a strident art-rock disaster, they didn’t release another album for 24 years. But Blinken’s other two choices were different. The melodically fetching, lyrically humane Crenshaw was just beginning his long career as the pop demigod God forgot. And although Reed came up in the ‘60s, by 1982 he was more punk godfather than rock hero, and in the wake of his up-and-down ‘70s The Blue Mask was a breakthrough and everybody knew it—although fewer including Blinken understood how much it owed his fruitful partnership with supple bassist Fernando Saunders and his fraught fling with doomed guitarist Robert Quine. So while over there Blinken staked a claim on the halcyon ‘60s, over here he let Harvard known that the rock cornucopia hadn’t yet run dry by devoting column inches to two Pazz & Jop top 10s.

Still scouting for talent as Village Voice music editor back then, I ask myself how I might have responded if Blinken had sent me these clips, which while solid enough could use more spark. Depends on the pitch letter is my guess, which given what became of him he probably would have aced. But Blinken had other plans—several, actually. Because understand—at 19, this kid had already lived the kind of privileged life that destines you for something big if it doesn’t mess you up altogether. His father was a New York investment banker, his stepfather a heroic Holocaust survivor who became a big-time attorney. Through his mother, who managed Merce Cunningham’s company, his father, president of the Mark Rothko Foundation after the painter’s children won rightful control of it, and his stepfather, who represented Christo in Paris and a bevy of movie stars in Hollywood, he brushed shoulders with major artists throughout his childhood and was still dabbling in the movie business in his thirties. But instead he wound up as first a speechwriter for and then a director of Bill Clinton’s National Security Council.

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In 2001, when Blinken was 38, he married the decade-younger Evan Ryan, a Clinton White House aide who would ultimately become Barack Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural Affairs. And shortly thereafter began the long relationship with then-senator Joe Biden that will soon make Blinken Secretary of State unless Mitch McConnell is even viler than we think he is. Blinken isn’t the international peacemaker of dreams—his commitment to democracy comes with an interventionist streak that would have sent the military to not just Syria but Libya. But he remains a wide-ranging and impressive guy who’s never stopped playing music. There’s even video of him sitting in on “Hoochie Coochie Man” with a band of D.C. luminaries dubbed the Coalition of the Willing. Blinken’s respectful yet unabashed vocal turns Muddy Waters’s brag into a kind of sacred text, its cooch, black cat bone, and $700 remnants of an honorable history that’s then lifted into a transformed present by 16 spectacular bars from none other than Skunk Baxter, whose post-music biz career calculating ballistic weapons risk once had him considering a House run as a Republican.

But this is by no means the most daring music in Blinken’s resume, because soon after the Harvard Crimson revelations came the Spotify revelations—under the moniker ABlinken (say it aloud if you don’t get the joke, an impudent one for a Secretary of State), Blinken is as of this writing still streaming two midtempo songs b/w guitar, bass, and drums plus hints of synthesized strings and high male background vocals. One is called “Patience” and the other “Lip Service,” of which my tipster Marcus wrote: “This isn't as bad as ‘Patience,’ which is real background music for whatever soft family series is currently filling the `Thirtysomethings’ slot.” Ahh, Greil—as so often happens, I disagree. Blinken’s soft-edged baritone delivers two effective if less than catchy melodies, and both songs are distinguished lyrically, “Patience” especially. One reason I got interested in Blinken’s marriage is that I’d gathered that it involved a long courtship, and long courtships are something that interest me—under radically dissimilar circumstances, I pursued my own wife for two years before we finally coalesced in 1972. So I’m well aware that in a music full of love songs I take more seriously than most critics, not many are about patience, and not many more begin like “Lip Service”: “I took a look around nothing to see/But then I finally found someone like me.”

That couplet would seem a strange sentiment for a diplomat, whose job is finding common ground with others, only maybe it isn’t. Diplomatic conversation, after all, is by definition calculated no matter how warm the underlying personal connections—one doesn’t exclude the other. Later in the song, in fact, the lover thinks like a diplomat: “I want to convince you,” and even more, “I know it’s a mistake/To open my heart/Make things too easy/Shed light on the dark.” But I still don’t understand exactly what “lip service” means—something about kissing? Anyway, calculation isn’t my way—I’ve been getting by on candor my whole life. That’s one reason I prefer “Patience,” which finds itself driven to actual truth-telling: “Patience is walkin’ around with you/When I know your heart isn’t mine/Patience is not knowin’ what to do/And the thought that I could be tryin’ harder.” Then it’s “Help me now, ‘cause patience is dyin’.” And then: “Patience is the test of life itself/And to fail would be suicidal.” And throughout: “I think that I could love you for our lives.”

Love songs with a fresh angle are rare, and many would call this one a deception—after all, statistics prove that love for life is a doomed fantasy more often than not. But you have to admit one thing. You’re a lot more likely to make that fantasy happen than to broker world peace.

Xgau Sez: November, 2020

Some thoughts on family, work, dancing, and the permanent-collection CDs that come out at mealtime. Also: country songs about systematic oppression & screwing with the hegemony of classical aesthetics

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Hi Bob. My name is Alfonso. I’m a 20-year-old student from Honduras. This is not a question but it seems to be the only way I can reach out you. I just wanna start by saying that I’m obsessed with rock and roll. Being obsessed with rock and roll, I stumbled upon you eventually because, well, you’re the most famous rock critic of all time. I was just reaching out to you hoping you see this and to tell you that I love your work. You and your writing mean the world to me. In a perfect world, I would be chatting with you about rock and roll. — Alfonso Godoy Baide, Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Well, this is cool. I don’t know if you’re aware that in 1985 I spent two months in Honduras with my wife adopting our daughter Nina, who we met when she was precisely two weeks old. Mostly we were in San Pedro Sula, and every afternoon after the rain stopped I’d walk around with her in my arms while my wife napped. I also walked further into the city by myself, and we left Nina with a sitter to take day trips up to Copan and over to the Miskito Coast. Our hostess was a Palestinian immigrant who owned a small clothing factory, and I understood that despite the cocks crowing and the iguanas darting about this was a genteel and protected neighborhood. But I never felt unsafe anywhere in the city. The last four days we spent speeding around Tegucigalpa with our lawyer to finalize the adoption. That was different. As you know, Teguce is the capital and also where the US anti-Sandinista operation was run from. It was cooler due to its elevation and where we were staying most houses were gated behind walls and armed guards were not uncommon.  As you also know, I assume, sleepy San Pedro Sula turned into a cocaine hub, which was only one reason it also turned into a city controlled block by block by individual gangs, a city that by some metrics was the murder capital of the world. That’s why so many of the migrants Donald Trump and his racist henchman Stephen Miller stopped at the Mexican border came from Honduras and San Pedro Sula specifically. God knows what Biden will be able to do about it given the other devastations Trump left on his plate, but undoing the work of Stephen Miller will be a fine start.

Agree 100% on your assessment of Elizabeth Cook’s “Thick Georgia Woman” as a “classic in waiting.” So I am wondering if you have any additional comments about the phrase “dream genocide” found later in the song? Specifically, if the dream in question refers to MLK Jr’s famous quote, doesn’t it summarize the staggering cultural and personal consequences of 21st century racial bias in two deft and damning words? — Greg Morton, Blue Guy in a Red State, Idaho

I love Elizabeth Cook, adore that song, and wish I could agree with you. But the couplet in question, which goes “A feather down place to hide/For your dream genocide,” seems all too opaque to me, and when it comes to addressing racism—if that’s the intention, which I doubt—opacity is a sin. Fuck subtlety—the more explicit the better. Yet though I must be forgetting something—is there nothing of use in the vast catalogues of the manifestly good-hearted Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton?—I can think of only one explicitly anti-racist song in all of mainstream country music: Brad Paisley’s much-mocked “Accidental Racist,” where “caught between Southern pride and Southern blame” and especially “They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears/We’re still sifting through the rubble after 150 years” seem like the right direction to me even though the LL Cool J cameo remains an embarrassment. No longer mainstream is Jason Isbell, whose concise, powerful 2017 “White Man’s World” addresses many varieties of systematic oppression with a clarity that near as I can tell shut him out of Music Row, perhaps permanently. Kudos too to Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me,” which is a lot more explicit than any of the other exceedingly scarce Black country artists—Charley Pride, Kane Brown, anybody remember Stoney Edwards?—have dared. I hope the reason is fear of the base rather than fear of Black Lives Matter, though both are distressing. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Your Dean’s List for the 2010s included two deluxe editions—M.I.A.’s Maya and Rihanna’s Anti. Are there any other deluxe or super-deluxe or “complete sessions” that you think improve on the original album release? For example, The White Album, or Nevermind, or Jack Johnson? Any thoughts on these big boxes in general? Thank you. — Rob Gallagher, New York City

There’s a difference between deluxe editions and the boxes you name. I often didn’t bother to check out boxes even when I got them in the mail, although I still wonder about that Grateful Dead one. But though I’m told I should check out the Jack Johnson and may some day, these expanded editions don’t really interest me. I’d much rather go dig out a Kirby Heard or Martin Creed album few know exists, or pay close attention to a Malian artist’s first U.S. release, than differentiate marginally between/among already established classics and register the existence of previously unreleased alternates and arcana. True deluxe editions, on the other hand, are worth a listen-hear. Since I buy most of my reviewables after streaming them on Spotify, it saves me bucks to check those out the bonus cuts, which are seldom worth the time or money but in the two cases you cite transform good albums into great ones. Often, however—a relatively recent example I examined carefully is Madonna’s Madame X—they have a diluting effect.

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Hello Mr. Christgau. Your writings always read like you’re a person much more inclined to be looking towards the future than romanticizing the past and forgive me if you’ve answered this before: Off the top of your head, what is the oldest piece of recorded music you’re still getting a kick out of right now? — Julian Hartmann, Bonen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

When I’m working, which is most of the time, I am indeed working, sifting through new stuff. But I play a lot of older music at mealtimes when Carola and sometimes Nina will be hearing it too. Looking over the permanent-collection CDs I need to reshelve at the moment, I see Albert Ammons, the Asylum Street SpankersOne Nation Under a Groove, Astor Piazzolla, the Ramones’ debutPretzel Logic, Billy Swan, Djelimady Tounkara, and Howlin’ Wolf. But that’s all post-World War II. From the ‘20s and ‘30s these days it’s less likely to be early Armstrong or Ellington, which I played a lot pre-2000, or Billie Holiday, an inexhaustible perennial, than country blues, particularly Skip James, who Carola’s really gotten into, the eternal Mississippi John Hurt (sometimes ‘60s stuff with him), or the superbly conceived and sequenced compilation Bernard MacMahon assembled for his American Epic project.

One of my teachers once said to me something along these lines: “Every other field has moved on, but aesthetics is exactly where it was 2500 years ago.” He was being provocative, but I can see where he was coming from. Do you see your criticism as aesthetics? Something else? Clearly we’re not just talking about beauty. There’s a Monk tune called “Ugly Beauty,” but is that just an evasion? Sincere thanks for this wonderfully generous online resource. — Tim Buckley, Melbourne, Australia

I certainly don’t see myself as an aesthetician. That’s a branch of philosophy, and while I took a few relevant philosophy courses in college and have dabbled around in aesthetics a little as any serious critic should, I’d rather immerse in art than in theory about it. But I have dabbled enough to know that in one respect your prof was setting you up for a fall. The key is that 2500-year crack. That puts us back with the Greeks, right? The Greeks had their Dionysian fling, as I discuss in the now finally unembargoed Dionysus essay that began its life with my long-ago Guggenheim world-history-of-pop project and took form as an EMP lecture prominently displayed up front in Is It Still Good to Ya?but not as far up front as another repurposed essay from that collection, another EMP presentation that serves as a prologue: “Good to Ya, Not for Ya: Rock Criticism vs. the Guilty Pleasure.” Without going into any detail and thus steamrollering many relevant cavils and objections, just say this: the rise of Romanticism really put a crimp in the hegemony of classical aesthetics. One way of describing that crimp is to say that ultimately it valorized as beautiful various usages most classicists would believe were, like Monk says, ugly, thus reminding us that most of the Greeks who invented democracy were in fact snobs who denied citizenship to the lower orders.  Without identifying with Romanticism except in the most general way, just say I’ve devoted my career and indeed my life to fucking that shit up.  “Exactly where it was 2500 years ago”? Bushwa. (Most recent relevant book read is a tough one: Johann Gottfried Herder’s Song Loves the Masses. See also the Terry Eagleton and Marshall Berman essays that close Book ReportsThe Raymond Williams too, why not? Go crazy. You asked for it.)

Did you know Slim Gaillard played an important role as musician and rapper in the fantastic 1941 dance sequence for Hellzapoppin featuring Frankie Manning and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers? Did you know I met Slim Gaillard in London in 1988? I did not know he was half-Jewish—he didn’t look it. — Judy Pritchett, Montclair, New Jersey

I did not know any of these things, although as we are aware and my readers aren’t, I have known you yourself, the former Judy Rosenberg, since 1962. I’m also well aware that you became an expert on swing-era dancing in your forties and from the late ‘80s until his death a month short of his 95th birthday in 2009 were the companion and manager of the great lindy hopper Frankie Manning, who with your help I taught at NYU a few years back after deciding that my music history course was shortchanging the swing era (stuck the Boswell Sisters in there too). Here’s the Gaillard-Manning sequence you cite: 

And here’s some more subdued Manning-Pritchett stepping in 1992, when Manning was 78:

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Twentieth Century Low Life, Illuminated

Luc Sante, "Maybe the People Would Be the Times" (2020, 328 pp.)

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On the blank white back cover of Luc Sante’s second essay collection stands a single blurb, from New York School poet John Ashbery: “Luc Sante is a superb writer who can give astonishing form to floating moods that no one noticed before.” Though I’d say Sante isn’t quite so evanescent, anyone who’s read him knows why Ashbery wanted to sing his praises. The man’s honed and acidulous yet speechlike and deadpan prose is an astonishing and deeply pleasurable thing even though pleasure per se—as opposed to laughs, which he nails on the regular—seldom seems his goal as a writer, person, or aesthete. Strange conjoinings, sudden apercus, deep background set off in relief—these he treasures in Maybe the People Would Be the Times, a book seldom slowed by a dull moment. Artistic sweep, formal nicety, the great ideas of Western man, nah.

Thus Sante’s decision to isolate Ashbery’s rave stands in stark opposition to the odd fact that in a book dominated by criticism Sante never addresses a single artist of Ashbery’s stature—scarcely mentions one. A scan of his 2007 Kill All Your Darlings collection seems similar until 200 pages in, whereupon materialize appreciations of Victor Hugo, René Magritte, and Walker Evans and cordoned off in a brief farewell section a fondly loopy celebration of his longtime East 12th Street neighbor Allen Ginsberg and a permanently awestruck account of an infatuation with Arthur Rimbaud that began well before Sante was 19, which as he can’t get over was the age when Rimbaud pretty much stopped writing anything more poetic than bills of lading. I should note for the record that John Ashbery later translated Rimbaud’s Illuminations. I should also note that Maybe the People Would Be the Times sports an epigraph from Rimbaud elder Charles Baudelaire: “I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time.”

This Sante interprets liberally, as he pretty much has to in a book that ranges around less than chronologically. But its linchpin is the title essay, which follows a paragraph headed “My Generation”—lead sentence: “You wish you’d spent more time with your generation before it died”—and a five-part rumination topped off with an entranced account of the Jaynetts’ transcendent 1963 hit “Sally Go Round the Roses.” Sante wrote his “Maybe the People Will Be the Times” piece for Vice in 2017, when he was 63 and I was a 75-year-old grateful to be tending a column in Vice’s Noisey music vertical. So I figure that like me Sante was aware that his readership in this online powerhouse was much younger than he was, and that he therefore conceived this remembrance of his early twenties as a way to inform, impress, and perhaps inspire later twentysomethings—fledglings whose life experience was generations removed from his own.

I should add that Maybe the People Would Be the Times seemed a rather murky title until I determined that it honors Arthur Lee’s catchiest song on Love’s classic 1967 Forever Changes, its title “Maybe the People Will Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale.” As a fledgling 25-year-old rock critic I always dug that album without giving much thought to its trippy lyrics, which with this song are easier to grok once you know that L.A.’s soon iconic Whiskey a Go-Go, where Love was the de facto house band in the early psychedelic era, was located on Sunset Boulevard between Clark and Hilldale. I imagine that holed up in his New Jersey bedroom, hyperintelligent 13-year-old rock fan Sante did know this as he envisioned the subcultural ferment he at some juncture in the middle future would be old enough to partake of—without imagining that by then he’d also be inspired and abashed by the insuperable example of a 19th-century French poet he’d barely heard of in 1967.

“Almost everything of interest in New York City lies in some degree of proximity to music,” the Vice piece begins, overstating its way past the Statue of Liberty, the Bronx Zoo, Coney Island, and the 7 Train before taking off from an early CBGB performance by Richard Hell-era Television that names neither band nor venue. Nor does Sante’s CBGB evolve into New York punk’s Whiskey as it did in history, where that single club generated Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads, none of whom Sante even namechecks. Oh well—at least Patti Smith, subject of the superb New York Review of Books appreciation “Mother Courage” a few pages on, gets to introduce Columbia dropout Sante and his phantom cohort of 200 or so to Jamaican toastmaster Tapper Zukie, who heralds the dubwise bass that along with other funk game-changers, uncounted postpunk here-and-gones, and nominal no wave immortals will lead Sante through an unmapped circuit of shot-in-the-dark clubs and unadvertised dance lofts. This action evolves ever more raggedly until 1981 or so, by which time he’s doing too many drugs—not grass, which for the young Sante barely counted, but heroin, called “boy,” and cocaine, “girl”—and comes to realize what every avant-garde generation-monger must: “[Y]ou have a year written on your own forehead and it’s not the current one. You have aged out of the struggle just in time for the struggle to be done with you.”

Whereupon Sante launches a series of impressionistically memoiristic blog posts and scene briefs that include a (fictional—I said fictional) précis of Rimbaud’s second life as a ventriloquist and establish that Sante is a Belgian immigrant whose parents were beaten up pretty good by the on-the-ground horrors of World War II and never really got over it. Ponder these facts briefly and you’ll realize that Sante’s unusual American childhood rendered him a seriously atypical 13-year-old rock fan holed up in his bedroom—a fundamentally alienated one so brilliant and singular he was capable of evolving into a writer drawn to topics like these: endless Georges Simenon crime novels where a cop named Maigret solves the crimes, pseudonymous Donald Westlake crime novels where a crook named Parker commits them, obscurantist New Wave director Jacques Rivette, found-photography ironist Richard Prince, need-I-say-more mystagogue H.P. Lovecraft, dare-I-say-it cult filmcrit Manny Farber, pioneering information artist Sophie Calle, pioneering graphic novelist Lynd Ward, and heroic street artist turned AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, who inspires the most admiring, tender, and pained writing in the book, at least in part because Cynthia Carr’s biography left Sante no other options.

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After many years as an East Village scrivener who cemented that identity with 1991’s Low Life, a groundbreaking history of 19th-century underclass Manhattan every Manhattanite should read, Sante now commands the award-winning repute he deserves. He lives north of Poughkeepsie and teaches at Bard, his subjects not just writing but the history of photography, a self-taught specialty that dominates the generously illustrated last third of a collection that would be a lesser thing without it. No Walker Evans or anybody else you’ve heard of except maybe original paparazzo Weegee, for three decades the best-known street and hence newspaper photographer in the world. That’s because, in a revealingly populist turn, Sante is interested in everybody’s photographs (physical ones—no cellphones or Instagram here).

A longtime collector of snapshots purchased for pocket change at estate sales, Sante seems interested in any kind of photograph that has no pretensions to art. He examines professional portraits, amateur family snaps, mug shots, evidence photos, staged arcade tableaus, movie stills, fotonovellas, phony spiritualist “spirit photographs” of the dead, and postcards depicting gruesome or sensational historical events (though he rightly refuses to reproduce any of the countless lynching pix that flooded the USPS in the ‘20s). Every one of these pieces is different in approach, and every one explores and respects the uncanonical aesthetic it arrives at; every one attempts to discern both the intentions of these shutterbugs, memento seekers, amusement-park hawkers, and workaday professional documenters and what they turn out to have left us with. Every one penetrates art that doesn’t know its own depths or its own foibles. 

Beyond his prose and the mind that goes with it, what’s attracted me to Sante since Low Life is his simultaneously dogged and delighted concentration on an ever-expanding conception of just that: low life. Bohemian-identified even in his current exurban eminence, Sante continues to recall the East Village where he came of age as the habitat of not just artists both inspired and off the wall but struggling working-class and sub-working-class grunts, strays, misfits, and petty criminals. This vision is all over this collection, most explictly in the penultimate “Neighbors.” But ultimately it’s all for naught. As a finale called “The Unknown Soldier” catalogues in 70 or so acutely differentiated sentences, they’re all going to die. The End.

Another illustrated piece closes out the music-dominated first section: “12 Sides,” photos of a dozen battered 45s Sante purchased cheap like those estate snapshots. Each begins with title, serial number, a note on where Sante found it, and a condition report including estimated number of plays. And each concludes with an imaginary account of their journey through history: who bought them, why, and then what happened. These are all pretty funny. Dyke and the Blazers’ “We Got More Soul”: “He played the record on Saturday mornings, finding in it an analogue to the optimistic cheer that filled him as he contemplated the beginnings of a weekend that seemed as long and promising as the unending highway of his future life. Now he has no recollection of it.” The Tymes’ “So Much in Love”: “He went so far as to try to become a priest to assuage his broken heart, but the order knew better than to sign him up. Today he is an angry drunk, and no longer remembers how he got there.” Doris Troy’s “Just One Look”: “Donated it to the church bazaar on the eve of her marriage. Now she is twice-divorced and sad, misses her records, misses her old friends, misses her mom.”

“Terrific,” I scrawled at the end, and read on. But the piece stuck with me in a disquieting way. Didn’t any of these lives have a happy ending? Any of these records persist in their original owners’ memories, even? Well, one: Arthur still plays James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” on CD while driving to his Con Ed job. Arguably a second, too—all three owners of the Fantastic Johnny C’s “Cool Broadway” “recall a certain brass-section color, a certain parade-drum bounce that stands in for 1968.” Still, the proportions seemed off. Was Sante laughing at these aged-out rock and roll fans? Was I?

Not exactly. But for sure Sante has honed an acidulous pessimism that’s become both a habit and a belief. His felt respect for low life is no less ingrained. But we live in a world where people smart enough to read Sante assume almost reflexively that they understand stuff the less smart are a mite too low to get on top of. Is this all we want from the beautiful language of our time? As someone who’s been an ensconced East Villager since just around the time Sante first visited CBGB, I’m not embarrassed to say that I hope not.

Xgau Sez: October, 2020

Streamed lectures and streamed music, the jazz apple and the rock orange, the enduring skippability of "Oar," the Lion King vs. the Black Panther, and the power of "WAP." Special guest: Carola Dibbell

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Your assorted dispatches from the EMP Pop Conferences have been the inspiration for both my initial attendance and my eventual presentations. I assume your recent medical issues were the reason you didn’t submit for this year’s conference originally scheduled for April. I noticed I didn’t see you at any of the virtual sessions happening this month. Considering your enthusiasm for the conference, I was wondering what the reason(s) was for your absence. — Richard Cobeen, Berkeley

I am not a Zoom guy to say the least. Are you, really? EMP has been major for me both socially and professionally, a kind of lifeline almost. Presentations I did there for an audience of my peers, usually requiring weeks of work no journalistic outlet would publish much less pay for, now bedeck both Book Reports and Is It Still Good to Ya?: Charlie Gillett and Henry Pleasants, Dionysus and Lil Wayne. But I cherish the social aspects even more, the mixing and mingling and walking around, the chance to say hello to people I see seldom or nowhere else like Carl Wilson, Josh Clover, Michaelangelo Matos, the Powers-Weisbard combo, and for that matter yourself—great teaching-music presentation on that bill with my sister a few years ago. I also valued the chance to migrate from one set of talks to another. I sent in a December proposal for the later Covid-cancelled EMP but bowed out long before the pandemic because it was clear my aching thigh would make travel onerous and walking around impossible. (Thigh’s been much better since I had lumbar fusion in June but still not necessarily EMP-ready.) And continuing disability has cut into my time. In addition, however, streamed lectures just aren’t live lectures the way streamed music just isn’t live music, a major reason I’m chagrined but not ashamed to admit I’ve watched very few livestreamed concerts. Also, I’m such a fuddy-duddy that I haven’t mastered Zoom as a technology—one funeral, one baby shower, that’s been about it. (Carola keeps up with her women’s group on Zoom. Many glitches.) We’ll see what happens on multiple fronts, and I can’t imagine disengaging from EMP altogether—it’s meant too much to me. But how I age remains to be seen.

I was surprised to see Louis Armstrong’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man missing from even the worklist of your top 50 albums article. You included other box sets (James Brown’s Star Time) and you’ve also called Louis Armstrong “the greatest artist of the 20th century” and “my favorite artist.” What gives? Too much filler on the Portrait? The collection of late-20’s/early-30’s songs where his vocals are equal billing with his trumpet seems to me to be some kind of musical peak few have reached — Dan M., Bucharest, Romania

I kept jazz albums off the Rolling Stone list because I’m a rock critic and Rolling Stone is a rock magazine. Carola made her own call and included Kind of Blue, but I just didn’t want to get involved in an apples-and-oranges problem—first Misterioso, then Portrait of the Artist (which I thought had gone out of print but am delighted to report is still buyable, go for it if you have the cash, folks), then Kind of Blue or should it be Jack Johnson, then Ellington’s Flaming Youth or maybe I should dig out Sonny Rollins’s A plus G-Man or who knows what-all. As for Star Time, well, fuck it: James Brown is one of the two or three greatest artists in rock or if you insist rock-era history and Star Time is the only album like object available to prove it, including Sex Machine and The Big Payback.  Strictly following rules in such vast and theoretically murky enterprise as the Stone 500 is the path of absurdity.

You refer back to some of the records covered in the first Consumer Guide in your intro to the seventies guide, and use the parenthetical “(I admit)” twice—once to refer to your praise for Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog, and in a corresponding reference to your dismissal of Skip Spence’s Oar. You’ve covered A Salty Dog as a probable B+ —still sounds pretty good to me, definitely less afflicted by pretensions than their others. But Oar you’ve never commented on since the original C-. So . . . do you like it? At least, better than you said you did over half a century ago? — Ryan M, Dallas

Oy, Oar. Yet for some perverse reason I clicked over to Spotify and found  a version that seemed to include 20 or so tracks, I didn’t count. This is a cult record so beloved that if they left the tape running while Spence used the shitter with the door open the plops and gurgles would probably show up on a deluxe collectors edition. On Spotify I got to track four or five while I pruned my email and moved on. What can I say—as I hope you’ve figured out by now, slow records by depressive and/or drug-addled space cases just ain’t my thing. Still love the first Moby Grape album, where Spence’s “Omaha” is a peak. Very little else—hopeless druggie for most of his life. I read that he left four kids behind when he died of lung cancer at 53. Hope they’re at least OK.

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Beyonce’s most recent project, the The Lion King soundtrack, has been compared to the Black Panther soundtrack. I think it offers more in its instrumentation (though perhaps more obvious in its use of African music and artists than Kendrick Lamar on Black Panther). It’s not as “smooth.” Do you find it too busy? Interested to know since it's been re-released to coincide with the Black Is King film (she’s added “Black Parade” and removed the spoken word parts). — James, Chester U.K.

I love her “Black Parade” enough to have bought a copy, but in general I seem to be turning into some kind of weird Beyonce truther or something—recognize her preeminence and mostly appreciate her public presence but just don’t dig her music the way many will feel I should. Tuning in on Spotify at your behest, I found the Lion King music so cutesy, disjointed, and plot-specific that I only got through six or seven tracks (and yes, I went back and checked just to make sure I hadn’t just been in a bad mood the first time). Far as I’m concerned, comparing it to the carefully sequenced Black Panther soundtrack is almost incomprehensibly silly. And let me also say that I am very much disinclined to check out her or anyone else’s music-you-can-only understand-when-watching-the-visuals. I don’t review videos, period, and am old and established enough to remain quite the crank about it.

Any thoughts on “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion and the media's reaction? — James, Liverpool

What’s not to like? I’m definitely a Cardi B fan, and while I’ve always found Megan a little macho, her recent assault experience has focused her mind considerably. So if these two established female rappers, a welcome and uncommon thing in itself, want to turn generations of big-dick mythos inside out, I say both yum and more power to them. As for media reaction, I don’t know what’s happening in the U.K. but nobody I take seriously over here has complained enough to get my attention (although it’s true that I ignore ignoramuses so steadfastly that “media reaction” often escapes my attention altogether). Your question did, however, remind me to watch the video, which I did with pleasure four-five times: witty, visually deft, and definitely sexy despite and sometimes because of its inevitable exaggerations—loved the big cats. I must add, however, that logocentric as I am I continue to find City Girls’ “Pussy Talk” sexier. Should no doubt check out the video on that one too. (P.S. Just did—waste of time.)

Hello, very much appreciate you Bob but this question is for Carola. I’m interested to know what brought you to select Madonna’s Immaculate Collection in your recent list for Rolling Stone’s 500. I ask because it indicates a change in opinion since the letter you wrote in 1992 for Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonnell. I won’t quote the letter because I don’t want to misrepresent it and I understand it covers more than just Madonna, but I’m curious to know the motivations for your selection and what, if anything, changed your mind on her. — James Kean, Liverpool U.K.

Carola Dibbell writes: Thanks for noticing things I said so long ago about Madonna. My daughter, a big fan even as a toddler (when she called Madonna “Mmm”), eventually won me over. While I’ve never considered Madonna a feminist hero, I’ve come to savor many of her songs—and yeah, that’s a lot about the beats, the arrangements, but whether she’s doing baby talk or throaty woman she does own them. While I pondered your question, Bob put on Immaculate Collection. “Holiday” opened and everything else stopped—the track had me with Jellybean Martinez’s 30-second intro before Madonna opened her mouth. Then there were “Cherish,” “Vogue,” “Live to Tell”—but not “Deeper and Deeper,” a favorite of mine from Erotica, which came out two years after the compilation.

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