Flag Still There

Some thoughts on Jimi Hendrix, the national anthem, and the F-bomb

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My lead in what follows here tells the truth. Having been through the full rigmarole 25 years before, I had no interest in holding forth on the 50th anniversary of the epochal historical if not musical event that was the 1969 Woodstock festival. But I couldn’t resist Los Angeles Times music editor Craig Marks’s idea of hooking the BS birthday celebration not just to the only piece of timeless music Woodstock generated, but to music that means even more now than it did then. Also, I needed the exposure. Having just lost my Expert Witness gig at Noisey with no new venue in sight and this Substack barely a gleam in Joe Levy’s eye, here was a chance to shout from a moderately fancy rooftop that I hadn’t retired, and if I worked it right a chance to make a few political points with a general audience and maybe even drop an F-bomb in the process—not “fuck,” fool, “fascism.”

I tweeted the Times piece, of course, and am sure some readers here caught it the first time. But I’m also sure many didn’t, and that what I wrote in 2019 remains all too relevant to our fraught politics. Right after the first Trump-Biden debate seemed just the time to drop that F-bomb again, and indeed, Trump’s unhinged abuse of not just his opponent but the overmatched moderator was the stuff tinpot authoritarians are made of. I have to say, however, that I was cheered somewhat by how inept he was at it—how clumsy, out of control, desperate. Never mind Putin—Duarte and Bolsonaro are clearly far slicker at this fuhrer business than 45. And while I’m sure some of my readers are still taken in by 45’s “sleepy Joe” routine, I thought Biden did what Biden was there to do—he didn’t fold or get rattled, and every once in a while he turned away from the trainwreck, looked at the camera, and told the spectators who mattered what they needed to hear. He closed just by urging them to vote. Because Biden believes that what’s making Trump desperate is his realization that he’s not only going to lose this thing but that for all his bluster and fraudulent threats there’s not a thing he can do about it.

That’s assuming you vote, of course. And you too. And all the friends and fellow citizens you urge to do the same.


As the rare active rock critic who attended the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair, I spent two weeks in July touring upstate New York with my wife hoping no one would try to interview me about it. It was what it was, mind-blowing in its way but always less epochal than legend had it, and in the most parlous political juncture of my lifetime, I had more urgent matters on my mind.

The ‘60s were with us still, as they deserved to be. In the hippiefied Ithaca suburb of Trumansburg, one of many communities nationwide where counterculture dreams have evolved into workable economic principles, we caught the tail end of the 29th annual GrassRoots Festival, where 20,000 jam-banders from ages 10 to 80 grooved to uncountable folk/rock subgenres and East Nashville malcontent Todd Snider scored more political barbs in an hour than any Woodstocker but Country Joe McDonald did in a career. In Erie Canal country we choked up at Seneca Falls’s Women's Rights National Historical Park and devoutly hoped Auburn's Harriet Tubman House would equal it soon.

But in the southwest quadrant of Adirondack State Forest, our mood shifted. The cordial motel owner running for local office as a Republican and the NRA sticker on her husband’s gorgeous restored black ‘46 Chevy pickup were only to be expected. But not the spectacle we encountered when we explored one side road: American flags hanging, often limply as if half dead, from every single house and pole. It was a disturbing image. So when the Times asked me to write about Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner,” it felt like maybe I had something to say about Woodstock after all.

Relatively few zonked rock fans heard the only important piece of music to come out of the 1969 get-together. By the time Hendrix’s barely rehearsed Gypsy Sun & Rainbows six-piece came on to close the festival at 8 a.m. Monday, the weekend’s 400,000 celebrants were down to 40,000 or less—a good crowd, obviously, but not a mythic one. On my way home myself by then, I can only guess that it added latecomers, locals and crazies to a portion of the few celebrants who spent the weekend near the stage.

If only because it was physically impossible, most of us didn’t. Insofar as Woodstock was magical, music was the occasion of that magic, not the cause. In 1969, when amplification in a 40,000-capacity stadium was a challenge unsolved, a natural basin accommodating 10 times that many was altogether out of reach. Though up front the audio may have been immersive, at who knows what cost in clarity and incipient tinnitus, further back and all around it was merely adequate. There the onstage sounds functioned as background music for enjoying the vibes, hanging out with friends, schmoozing with strangers, skinny-dipping in the woods, and digging what we knew was an amazing piece of history.

Woodstock's music was less than epochal anyway. Among the missing were the Beatles-Stones-Dylan triumvirate and all of black “soul” save the rock-certified Sly and the Family Stone. Not one of the other big-name sets became canonical, and too many were subpar—Crosby, Stills, Nash & (sometimes) Young’s second live show ever, Jefferson Airplane resenting their own 8 a.m. slot, Janis Joplin making like a pro for an audience she found too huge to relate to. When 1970’s Woodstock triple-LP came out, my second-favorite track was the historically negligible Ten Years After’s rockabilly-spiked speed boogie “I’m Going Home,” and after too much double-checking it still is. But it’s dwarfed by my favorite.

Gypsy Sun & Rainbows comprised Hendrix, his longtime drummer Mitch Mitchell, bassist Billy Cox, percussionists Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez, and backup guitarist Larry Lee. Sultan and Velez are hard to make out on the [long-deleted] Hendrix Woodstock album that finally came out in 1994, Lee impossible, but the other three render this condensed and reordered version of their festival performance one of the more striking of the uncountable live Hendrix albums to appear since he died in 1970. Scheduled for 11 Saturday night, Hendrix’s troupe trucked in two hours early and went on nine hours late because that's how far behind things were—the promoters offered him the prime midnight slot but his manager insisted that he close the festival.

“I see that we meet again. Hmmm . . .” Hendrix began, and after admitting that they’d only rehearsed twice nailed the “prime rhythm thing” “Fire” before introducing the unreleased “Izabella”: “Gonna do a song dedicated to maybe a soldier in the Army, singin’ about his old lady that he dreams about and humpin’ a machine gun instead. Or it could be a cat maybe tryin’ to fall in love with that girl-baby, but a little bit too scared. That’s where the problems come from sometimes, isn’t it? I mean the cat really insecure a little bit, so they call girls groupies and they call girls this and they call passive people hippies and blah blah woof woof on down the line.”

After “Izabella” follow uncommonly deliberate and soulful versions of the great Hendrix warhorses “Hear My Train a Comin’” and “Red House,” an eight-minute new Hendrix copyright aptly titled “Jam Back at the House (Beginnings)” that stiffens slightly before it blooms into fast picking and far-out sonics, and an incendiary “Voodoo Child” that crumbles almost distractedly into just the first verse of the forgettable Hendrix original “Stepping Stone.” Why was this apparent misstep preserved on a carefully edited reconstruction of a longer set? I figure verisimilitude, because what comes next is what actually segued out of “Stepping Stone” on that long-lost Monday morning and etched Hendrix’s performance into history.

It’s generally believed that “The Star Spangled Banner” climaxed Woodstock. In fact Hendrix ended the festival by sandwiching two improvisations between the stoned “Purple Haze” and the sexist “Hey Joe.” It’s generally believed that he’d never performed it before. In fact he’d been dropping it into his sets for a year. But these false memories only point up the enduring shock value of Hendrix’s deconstruction of our national anthem. Some of the sonics he inserts throughout have editorial content—dive-bombing effects begin after “rockets’ red glare,” “Taps” interpolations follow at “flag was still there,” in one interlude bombs are definitely dropping, and Mitchell drums up a barrage of his own throughout. But mostly Hendrix is just translating this awkward old melody into a rock dialect that only he could articulate in the summer of ‘69, before his army of imitators figured out how to mimic it.

The tune itself is a notoriously resistant one—the high note that tops off “land of the free” has soured many sporting events. But it was also a standard when in 1814 Francis Scott Key lifted it whole from “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a drinking song that it turns out was also a sex song: “And besides I’ll instruct you, like me, to entwine / The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.” Just right for an artist into making love and getting high, you might think, but there's next to no chance Hendrix knew that and plenty that he related to “The Star Spangled Banner” as a former schoolboy.

“I’m American so I played it. I used to have to sing it in school, they made me sing it at school,” he told TV host Dick Cavett a few weeks later, and when Cavett called his rendition “unorthodox” responded, “I thought it was beautiful.” Nor was this just a hipster pulling a square’s leg, because Hendrix also played it as an ex-serviceman. He turned 19 in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, and though he soon wiggled out of military service, he never renounced it, always remembering his Army buddies, who included bassist Cox and machine gunners like the one he imagined at Woodstock.

Jimi Hendrix loved to flash the peace sign, as he did both at Woodstock and on Cavett’s show. He loved the counterculture that made him a hero, too. But like most musicians he was more a hippie than a peacenik much less a radical, known to defend the Vietnam War in conversation back when he started playing “The Star Spangled Banner” live. His politics were still evolving as of Woodstock and after—most people’s were. And for sure he meant to claim the national anthem for his white, groovy, long-haired, spaced-out tribe. So he tore it down and built it up back up into something so avant and anarchic that peaceniks and radicals have taken it for their own ever since.

That’s because what matters about this “Star Spangled Banner” isn’t what Hendrix thought it was, if he even knew exactly. Rather it’s what he meant to leave us free to think it was. Thus it’s an image of America that Americans dismayed by what America has become can cherish. Amid the blah blah woof woof of flag-pinned liars and flag-waving know-nothings, it’s a way for those of us who thought America would never have to fight fascism again to remember that we’re doing so to make our beloved nation the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Originally published August 13, 2019, in the Los Angeles Times.

Lists on Lists on Lists

Ballots for the third "Rolling Stone" inventory of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

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As most of my little world is aware, Rolling Stone has just published its third 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. I wasn’t part of the first two. But in 2020 I was already relistening in my compulsively responsible way when the Stone solons threw in a sweetener by beefing up an electorate that can always use more women by adding the great lost rock critic Carola Dibbell to the rolls. Soon Carola’s requests were crowding my own checkouts and Consumer Guide work, a process that toward the end of this supremely enjoyable research climaxed one non-TV living room evening as we finally got to two marginal candidates from punk-era Britain: Wire’s Pink Flag and Eno’s Another Green World. Life has a way of cutting into our listening as concentration ebbs and flows. But this time we both sat spellbound with an occasional comment, loving every track as we realized that while Wire’s stripped, harsh art-punk intensity and Eno’s fond, quiet pastoral technophilia seem diametrical in principle, both respond to the punk moment with minimalist restraint, a spare lyricism of tunelets. So the two longshots meshed, with the Eno ending up in both of our Stone top 50s but the Wire in mine only, because loving more than 50 albums is a way of life around here. Moreover, both finished in Stone’s 500, Wire at 310 and Eno at 338.

I don’t know how the bizzers and artists Stone dragoons into its surveys compile their lists. It’s as hard to believe that any of them relisten systematically as that any of them can resist hyping their own personal and professional connections. Criticism has its limitations too, of course, and I’m sure plenty of my fellow pros rely too much on dim fond memories and ingrained ideological prejudices when they compile their best. I’m not about to analyze or hold forth at length about the list beyond three notes. 1) Only one of the collective top 10—What’s Going OnPet SoundsBlueSongs in the Key of LifeAbbey RoadNevermindRumoursPurple RainBlood on the TracksThe Miseducation of Lauryn Hill—made my top 50, with Blue the winner and the Beach Boys, Hill, and especially poll-topping Gaye picks not even sure A’s by me, and though it’s time for me to relisten to Hill again and think about a grade for Pet Sounds, which I’ve never fallen for or written about. 2) I’m replaying the poll-topping What’s Going On as I write and as happens every fucking time I give it another chance am tuning out as the strings of the otherwise obscure David Van De Pitte swallow such mediocre songs as “Flyin’ High” and “Right On.” “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” “Inner City Blues”? Stone masterpieces, all three—brilliant and even earth-shaking, I mean it. The rest? Well-meant filler. 3) I am pleased to see that the initially rather overhyped and now way underrated Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band finished at 24. Our lists shared 25 albums and eight additional artist duplications—not only does she prefer Rubber Soul to Sgt. Pepper, but we both listed different early U.S.-only Beatles albums that a scan of the Stone list suggests didn’t finish there, she the Meet the Beatles debut she and her Radcliffe pals danced in their rooms too, me The Beatles’ Second Album I bought at Korvettes.

But although aware that my readership would be delighted if I went on about this statistical artifact, I won’t. Life is too short; I have shoulder surgery scheduled for next week and plenty of fine if not all-time-great albums to sum up for the October Consumer Guide before I’m disabled in ways I can’t anticipate (although I’m assured that typing will come soon). So instead I will provide the one thing much of my readership craves more if not a lot more than my prose: LISTS.

First the obvious stuff: my top 50 with methodological prologue, Carola’s top 50 stark naked, and then—ta-dah!—a worklist of our listening adventures. Both top 50s, as my prologue explains, are now alphabetical by artist, although Carola’s ballot did list the first 10 in an order she prefers to keep private for reasons I don’t altogether understand. The third list catalogues the albums we checked out, although because it was conceived as a reminder not a record there are certainly omissions—sometimes we’d just think of something, pull it out, and decide it wasn’t a candidate for the cut without my writing it down. Note too that all three lists are bedecked with boldface Ls. L means we listened to the record so bedecked, but I can’t imagine I got every one—although I’m certain that we didn’t have time for such lifetime faves as Omona WapiFuneral Dress, our most-played of all time Have Moicy!, and M.I.A.’s still-brilliant-even-if-she’s-now-an-anti-vaxxer-nut Kala, which remains my favorite album of the current century. To avoid the tedious labor of formatting the text, in all three lists I’ve been inconsistent about the italics I’m generally punctilious about. These are worksheets, folks—enjoy or ignore as you prefer.


ROBERT CHRISTGAU’S TOP 50

Although Sgt. Pepper comes first below, my list is not arranged in order of preference, an impossible task piled on the impossible task of picking 50 albums to begin with. Instead it’s arranged alphabetically by artist. So assuming you’re assigning numerical values to our selections, mine should all get the same number. Let me add that I assume you’re not so foolish as to go 50 down to 1; 100 down to 51 would make much more sense, because we obviously don’t like our favorite 50 times as much as the one that squeaked in last though we may like it twice as much. Let me also add that I've avoided best-ofs except when the artist was a “singles” rather than an “album” artist—a ‘50s artist, that usually means, with half an exception for James Brown and a full one for the multiple heroines of Rhino’s immortal Girl Group Greats comp. I also chose not to name any artist more than twice, with half an exception for John Lennon.

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band L

The Beatles, The Beatles’ Second Album L

Chuck Berry, The Definitive Collrction L

Blondie, Parallel Lines L

James Brown, Star Time L

The Clash, The Clash

Culture, Two Sevens Clash

DeBarge, In a Special Way L

DJ Shadow, Endtroducing DJ Shadow

Bob Dylan, “Love and Theft” L

Bob Dylan & the Band, The Basement Tapes L

Eminem, The Marshall Mathers Album

Eno, Another Green World L

The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin

Franco & Rochereau, Omona Wapi (Shanachie version)

Girl Group Greats L

Gogol Bordello, Super Taranta! L

Grateful Dead, Workingman’s Dead L

Al Green, I’m Still in Love With You L

Guitar Paradise of East Africa L

Michael Hurley/The Unholy Modal Rounders/Jeffrey Fredricks & the Clamtones, Have Moicy!

The Indestructible Beat of Soweto L

Latin Playboys, Latin Playboys

John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band L

Jerry Lee Lewis, “Live” at the Star Club, Hamburg L

Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III

Little Richard, The Very Best of . . . Little Richard L

M.I.A., Kala

Joni Mitchell, Blue L

Van Morrison, Moondance L

New York Dolls, New York Dolls

Orchestra Baobab, Specialist in All Styles L

Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back L

Ramones, Rocket to Russia L

Otis Redding, The Immortal Otis Redding L

The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street L

The Rolling Stones, The Rolling Stones, Now! L

The Roots, How I Got Over L

The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols L

The Shirelles, The Very Best of the Shirelles (Rhino)

Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation L

Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis L

Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic L

Television, Marquee Moon

The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground L

Kanye West, Late Registration L

Wire, Pink Flag L

Wussy, Funeral Dress

Neil Young, After the Gold Rush L

Tom Zé, Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé L


CAROLA DIBBELL’S TOP 50

The Beach Boys, Wild Honey L

The Beatles, Meet the Beatles  L

The Beatles, Rubber Soul L

Chuck Berry, St. Louis to Liverpool L

Blondie, Parallel Lines L

James Brown, Star Time L

The Clash, London Calling

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue L

DeBarge, In a Special Way L

Derek & the Dominoes, Layla L

Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks L

Bob Dylan, “Love and Theft” L

Brian Eno, Another Green World L

Aretha Franklin, Aretha Now L

Marvin Gaye, Here, My Dear L

Girl Group Greats (Rhino) L

Grateful Dead, Workingman’s Dead L

Al Green, Call Me L

Michael Hurley/Unholy Modal Rounders/Jeffrey Fredrick & the Clamtones,

Have Moicy

Latin Playboys, Latin Playboys L

Madonna, The Immaculate Collection L

M.I.A., Kala

Mekons, OOOH L

The Best of the Memphis Jug Band (Yazoo) L

Joni Mitchell, Blue L

Moldy Peaches, Moldy Peaches L

Van Morrison, Moondance L

Willie Nelson, Stardust

New York Dolls, New York Dolls

Randy Newman Twelve Songs L

Prince, Sign O the Times L

John Prine, John Prine L

Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back L

The Ramones, Ramones L

Otis Redding, The Immortal Otis Redding L

The Rolling Stones, Let it Bleed L

The Rolling Stones, Rolling Stones, Now! L

The Roots, How I Got Over

Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols L

Sonic Youth, Thousand Leaves L

Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis

Steely Dan, Katy Lied L

Television, Marquee Moon

Velvet Underground, Velvet Underground L

Kanye West, Late Registration L

Lucinda Williams, Sweet Old World L

Wussy, Funeral Dress

Neil Young, After the Gold Rush L

Tom Ze, Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Ze L


WORKLIST

Al Green, Call Me L

Amy Rigby, Diary of a Mod Housewife L

Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You L

Aretha Franklin, Spirit in the Dark L

Beach Boys, Wild Honey L

Bille Eilish, When We Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? L

Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan L

Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited L

Bob Marley & the Wailers, Exodus L

Bob Marley & the Wailers, Legend L

Brian Wilson, SMiLe L

Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. L

Buddy Holly, The Buddy Holly Collection L

Chuck Berry, St. Lous to Liverpool L

Congotronics 2 L

Cornershop  When I was Born for the 7th Time L

David Bowie, Station to Station L

Derek & the Dominoes, Layla L

Elvis Presley, The Sun Sessions L

Etoile de Dakar, Volume 1: Abba Gueye L

Funkadelic, One Nation Under a Groove L

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, The Message L

Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?

Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland L

Howard Tate: Get It While You Can: The Best of Howard Tate L

John Prine, In Spite of Ourselves L

John Prine, John Prine L

John Prine, Sweet Revenge L

Kanye West, The College Dropout L

Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Dancer With Bruised Knees

Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog L

Leonard Cohen, Live in London

Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville L

Lou Reed, The Blue Mask L

Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road L

Lucinda Williams, Sweet Old World L

Manfred Mann's Earth Band, Manfred Mann's Earth Band L

Marvin Gaye, Here My Dear L

Michael Jackson, Off the Wall L

Michael Jackson, Thriller L

Miles Davis, Jack Johnson L

Mott the Hoople, All the Young Dudes L

Neil Young, Tonight's the Night L

Ornette Coleman, Of Human Feelings

Otis & Carla, King and Queen L

Parliament, Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Suystem L

Prince, Dirty Mind L

Prince, Sign `O' the Times L

Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet L

Ramones, Ramones L

Randy Newman, Dark Matter L

Randy Nemwman, Good Old Boys L

Randy Newman, Harps and Angels L

Randy Newman, 12 Songs L

Steely Dan, Katy Lied L

Talking Heads, Remain in Light

The Beach Boys, Wild Honey L

The Beatles, Meet the Beatles L

The Go-Betweens, Tallulah L

The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs

The Mekons, Fear and Whiskey L

The Mekons, OOOH! L

The Moldy Peaches, The Moldy Peaches L

The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed L

The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara L

The Velvet Underground  Loaded

The Wailers, Burnin' L

Todd Snider, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 L

Tricky, Maxinquaye

Willie Nelson, Stardust

X, Wild Gift L

Youssou N'Dour, Rokku Mi Rakka L

Love & Kisses

Isabel Miller: "Patience & Sarah" (1969, 184 pp.)

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Trawling our bookshelves in search of an enjoyable novel that wasn’t too long or too light—Furst? Forster? Colette?—I came across a diminutive $1.50 Fawcett Crest paperback I’d never noticed: Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller, cover illo two women in long 19th-century dresses with the anachronistically bare-shouldered brunette kneeling at the other’s feet. So I asked my wife, who instantly recalled reading it back in our early days—copyrighted 1969 as A Place for Us, the retitled edition is dated 1973. To my surprise she gave me a quick, enthusiastic OK. Knows me well, does my wife.

I loved this book, swallowed its 184 pages of text in under 48 hours, and though my Fawcett version would appear to be gone gone gone, a plethora of other editions is available from varying sources at widely varying prices. Amazon lists a new paperback of one such at $920.99, but you can find the novel far cheaper and even very cheap; Abebooks has 45 available as I write; if audiobooks get you going, you poor lost soul, there’s one featuring Janis Ian and Jean Smart that garnered a Grammy nomination, which reminds me to mention that in 1998 an opera version was staged and way back in 1971 the American Library Association is said to have created the Stonewall Award for this book. I mean, talk about a cult classic. Go to Goodreads, that often dismaying glimpse of everyday literary pleasures, and grok quickly how beloved it remains.

Patience and Sarah is a love story that flowers between 1816 and 1818 in eastern Connecticut’s Housatonic Valley and comes to full fruition when the two women buy a farm in Greene County in the northern Catskills. Patience is older and, thanks to her father’s providential will and testament, independently wealthy enough to set off with her beloved and buy a modest homestead; Sarah grew up in a much larger and poorer family where an endless parade of female children compelled her to literally wear the pants as her father’s right-hand man. They meet when Sarah delivers some wood one winter day and less than a week later are making out in the separate apartment Patience owns in a wing of the well-appointed family house. In a world where Sarah’s pants alone render her what Patience’s mean sister-in-law calls a “freak,” this is hot stuff. And sexy parts continue to spike a plausible, action-packed tale often described as “meticulously researched.”

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I don’t know about that. Insofar as Patience and Sarah is a historical novel, it may or may not be true. Certainly one of its pleasures for me was familiarizing myself with the pasts of two northeastern regions I’ve often visited or passed through, particularly Greene County, where my sister has a summer place in a region where farming continues as well. I was also taken with the 25 pages the couple spend in a vividly rendered early Manhattan, where I know the historiography better. But although the principals are based on a documented couple who shared a Greene Country farm from 1810 to 1825, the relevant research couldn’t very well be meticulous because there’s little else there. Patience is based on the primitivist painter Mary Ann Willson, whose scant surviving work resurfaced in 1943 and who is said to have resettled in Greene County from Connecticut in 1810 with a Miss Brundage, no given name immediately apparent although newer accounts call her Florence. There Willson painted and Brundage farmed until Brundage died of unspecified causes in 1825, whereupon a heartbroken Willson disappeared from view.

Presumably painter Willson came from more wealth than farmer Brundage, but beyond that Miller is obliged to imagine the two Connecticut families who populate half her tale, with the other half devoted not just to the couple’s Greene County resettlement but to the many months Sarah spends fending for herself on the road after the two families try to separate the couple, mostly by helping out a traveling bookseller. This man who thinks she’s a boy that he’s taught to read is dismayed but philosophical when he makes a pass at the fellow and learns she’s not actually a fellow—though he himself, mind, has a wife and family in Manhattan, where later he’ll welcome Sarah and Patience on their way upstate together. As a lesbian couple in frontier America with little or no conception of such a thing, the two women never come out except eventually to their families. But the uncommon kindness they encounter makes it seem that Isabel Miller was set on creating an idyll that did poetic justice to a gay rights movement just coming into flower as she conceived her tale.

Her mother a nurse, her father a police officer, Miller was born Alma Routsong in Traverse City, Michigan in 1924. At 22 she married a man with whom she bore four daughters while also publishing two novels devoid of lesbian content. But Patience and Sarah, written under a pseudonym that combined an anagram for “Lesbia” with her mother’s maiden name, was stonewalled by the industry, so she put it out herself with her longtime lover, economist Elisabeth Deran. Who knows to what extent if any that relationship inflected the Patience-and-Sarah relationship she invents. Her heroines are much younger and less worldly, but the intensity with which they crave and enjoy each other’s company—and also, as that becomes more of a given, the nervous, alienated moments that undermine or compromise that intensity—certainly evoke ups and downs I’ve experienced. As a monogamous romantic I found myself both touched and mildly aroused by how much they like to kiss each other, which Miller conveys as much with pace and tone as with concrete detail. Before long it becomes clear that breasts are also involved, and eventually you learn that they even have a way to say “orgasm,” a term then decades in the future—“my melt,” they call it, which I say is about perfect. Clearly one reason readers love this book is that it's sexy without being pornographic.

Patience and Sarah is narrated by its protagonists, who trade off over six sections. Having only learned to read after she met Patience, Sarah’s style is somewhat plainer than Patience’s, but since the entire tale is retrospective Miller doesn’t overdo the distinction—the two voices share an unpretentious, unliterary concreteness that pervades a novel with its own nice approach to realism. Sarah-disguised-as-a-boy imagining stealing kisses from girls she might meet: “A kiss that you feel deep tears you deep later when it’s lost. But a laughy kiss hurries you on your way and makes the miles fly.” Patience as the two women get settled on a steamer to New York: “The captain is chanting again, recovered from the flurry of our arrival. The crewmen with many curses are loading horses. I do see we mustn’t go outside while men are cursing.” Together the two voices fuse into one almost unnoticed style that delights as it informs. Village Voice reviewer Bell Gale Chevigny may be overdoing it: “The writing has the directness and whimsicality of primitive paintings—it is like spiked gingerbread or surprising samplers. The tone is sweetly bold. And the tale evokes many kinds of frontier at once.” But how evocatively the story describes and how easily it moves is proof of Miller's writerly subtlety and has to be another reason her novel is beloved.

History tells us that death stole one lover and devastated her survivor. But we leave their fictional counterparts as they’re struggling alongside their just-built bedstead—“a shaggy rectangular frame on shaggy cornerposts”—to fashion a mattress worthy of “the bridal sheets of fine linen” from Patience’s hope chest. They’d looked forward to a “feast,” “wild and careless and noisy and free.” Instead, the mattress is a mess and all they get is one very soft, very long kiss plus Sarah's resigned observation that “You can’t tell a gift how to come.” Which for that night, at least, is enough. After all, they still share a future that they and the reader can believe will be happy if hardly trouble-free. And I believe this is one more reason Miller’s novel is beloved—probably the most compelling reason of all.

Xgau Sez: September, 2020

Several 30 seconds of greatness, formalists formally considered, Ray Davies informally considered, list-making explained, hip-hop unexplained, and the "The Harry Smith B-Sides" expurgated

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Hi Bob, thank you for your years of attentive pleasure. I’m closer to my own delight thanks to how you’ve taught me to listen. Curious: what comes to mind when you think of your favorite 30 seconds of music? (A friend I asked this offered Herbie Hancock’s intro to Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” and Doug Martsch’s bonkers guitar solo in Built to Spill’s “Girl.” I’d choose, I guess, the horns-answered-by-piano-rumble ending the first chorus of Lee Dorsey’s “Get Out of My Life Woman” or the heavenly feather-light guitar that enters at 9:26 in Franco’s “Tailleur.”) Does your enjoyment attach to moments (a brief solo, a crescendo, a vocal flight or cry, a musical phrase of paralyzing beauty) as much as to whole songs or albums? Grateful as always. — Jay B. Thompson, Seattle

My first response to this impossible question (because there are so many and they’re so fleeting) was that I treasure moments much longer than that, especially whole songs and beyond that whole albums. Only then I immediately began thinking of possibilities and checking them out. So having determined that Johnny Griffin’s solo on Monk’s “In Walked Bud” was far too long I’ll leave my answer at first-response impulses unless Carola has the perfect answer when we discuss this, as we will. So the two artists who first occurred to me were Wussy, where the “Teenage Wasteland” lead proved a nonstarter before the “Airborne” verse with the “yours pile”-“floor tile” rhyme held up to 30-second parsing, and then—how could I forget??—the Beatles, whose first “Yeah yeah yeah”s-plus-verse on “She Loves You” and “Please Mr. Postman” outro are both a touch short but what the hell. Only then I thought of  Franco & Rochereau’s Omona Wapi, where 0:19-0:52 of  the lead “Lisanga Ya Ba Nganga” is mostly Rochereau and his men, first chorale and then a solo turn, and irresistibly beautiful in my opinion. As is the whole track, come to that. The winner so far.

Do you consult with any other critics when compiling your year and decade-end lists? Carola included. — AJ, London.

Of course I do. Why not, it’s something to talk about as the year ends, and when I was at the Voice I did it all the time. These days, however, I converse regularly with very few critics, Joe Levy mostly. I also check out unfamiliar titles on lists published in December. But I always have an excellent preliminary database because I’ve not only reviewed and rated most of the likely candidates but put them in rough Dean’s List order. So over the years most of my calculations have involved relistening and finalizing that order, which does move around quite a bit in December and January. And always there’s input from Carola, who doesn’t consider herself a critic but whose comments on what’s playing in the dining room color my writing every month of the year.

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I’ve been beguiled by your use of the term “formalism” in reference to bands and artists. In a general sense I can grok what you are saying but am wondering does the use of the descriptor formalist connote a sense of stylistic predictability or derivativeness? Is there an antonym in your critical arsenal for music that is the antithesis of formalistic? Below are a couple of abridged examples. It appears so often, and isn’t necessarily correlated with whether you find something pedestrian or worthwhile. — Martin Cassidy, Nashville

Van Halen: Van Halen II [Warner Bros, 1979] So how come formalists don’t love the shit out of these guys? Not because they’re into dominating women, I’m sure. C+

R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction [I.R.S., 1985] But as formalists they valorize the past by definition, and if their latest title means anything it's that they're slipping inexorably into the vague comforts of regret, mythos, and nostalgia. B+

Let me note to begin that the “they” in the Van Halen needs a clearer referent, a fuckup on my part—no telling whether it indicates the band or the formalists. I meant the band, thus suggesting that formalists may be clever, aesthetically sophisticated fellows, but they’re probably just as sexist as the metal clods they disdain. And that’s a start: formalists are aesthetes who may well be jerks in other respects and often lack the idiosyncrasy that makes pop music feel special. What do Van Halen and R.E.M. share? Both are technically brilliant bands that delight in recapitulating the musical essentials of their chosen genres, metal and folk-rock/indie-rock. That much only a bigger clod would deny. In Van Halen both Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth take their respective roles to new levels, just like R.E.M.’s guitar polymath Peter Buck and charismatically elusive Michael Stipe, whose early refusal to pronounce the band’s lyrics said so much it didn’t actually come out and say—that their collegiate following didn’t actually care what the songs were “about” because the songs’ sound was all that mattered to them. Preferring R.E.M.’s materials to Van Halen’s and noting both that I warmed briefly to Van Halen when 1984 led with the great single “Jump” and that Stipe soon abandoned his mush-mouthed shtick, which in retrospect was what it was. But this isn’t to say formalists can’t be fun. My favorite example is Zion, Illinois’s Shoes, who I don’t recall even touring (though they did release a live EP). Basically, they just made records. And you could make a case that the Ramones were the greatest formalists in rock history. But after venturing that in relatively modern pop music it’s a special province of power pop I’ll say sayonara to a question best answered by a book no sufficiently smart person is likely to write.

Re: Ray Davies.  Have not seen much, if any, reference or opinion on him in your review or other writings.  Would really appreciate your thought on his writing with the Kinks and solo.

Thank you.—Frederick Bulman, Athol, Massachusetts

P.S. Your comments regarding Chicago and World Party made me wince.

This question addresses another great ‘60s bands that did its best work before the Consumer Guide got started. (Personal to Creedence questioner: so to an extent does yours.) I did actually publish a Kinks piece when I was just getting started at the Voice in early 1969, and it’s OK for something I wrote overnight, as I did at the beginning there because post-Esquire I resented my $40 fee. And I paid a lot of attention to them when they moved from Reprise to RCA and commenced a theatrical phase that I never thought jelled, though at times I admired it. (Dave Hickey did a great review of one of their shows for me.) So let me say first of all that I love the Kink Kronikles comp and then add that Ray Davies wrote two of the greatest songs in rock history: “Waterloo Sunset,” a clear candidate for number one, and “Lola.” But I’ve never been sold on the RCA stuff and stand by the reviews I published except to say that some of the B plusses may well just have been B’s. Basically, I think Davies has the terrible politics/worldview of a professional nostalgiac even though only such a nostalgiac could have written “Waterloo Sunset,” which bottles up and decants the respect and affection due a past that deserves plenty of both. He regards himself as some kind of satirist or public observer but too often he’s soft in the head. I’ve listened to some of his better-received recent stuff and didn’t think it was terrible. But though I did try, I didn’t think it was compelling either.

P.S. My Chicago and World Party reviews were supposed to make their fans wince. Glad the trick worked. 

Bob: Could you tell us a little bit more about your relationship with hip-hop at the moment? I’m interested in how you decide what to write about these days, given the vast and ever-expanding universe of new music in the genre. Are there writers or publications you read regularly who keep you clued in? Do you struggle to keep your ears fresh, a problem that seems to affect a lot of longtime hip-hop followers given the radical changes (geographical, cultural, technological) the music has gone through over the last few decades? Are there subsets that interest you or speak to you more than others? Trends or sub-styles you find yourself gravitating toward or being put off by? I think you’ve written so well about so much hip-hop, and I would never want you to trade your idiosyncrasies for a more programmatic approach. But sometimes I wonder how, for example, Serengeti gets so much ink, and Drake so little? — Richard, Atlanta

Except for Pitchfork a little and to an even lesser extent Rolling Stone, I don’t look anywhere for hip-hop advice. That includes the New York Times, where I’ve found Jon Caramanica’s numerous discoveries of so little personal use that even when I do check one out the intent is basically informational—two plays max, usually one. I’ve written here before about my informed skepticism in re Soundcloud rap and how much I’ve come to hate the word “bitch.” I do check out most high-charting hip-hop albums but seldom get to play three. Moreover, hip-hop is a singles music more than ever and I review albums; hip-hop is video-oriented and I haven’t paid attention to music videos in well nigh thirty years. Even so I write about a lot of hip-hop for a 78-year-old white guy, just not at the same clip as when I was a 48-year-old white guy. I seem now to be one of the few critics to pay much mind to alt-rap, which has obviously lost what veneer of hip it ever had. So if it’s somebody like Serengeti, who puts out a shitload of music much of which is to my ears at least engaging or interesting, I make my report, while though people have been telling me Drake is a pop god for years—my NYU students loved him—I’ve decided again and again that he’s a pop bore. As in most music these days, I pay more mind to female artists than male, not because it’s politically correct but because—statistically, far as I’m concerned—women are more excited about making music in almost every genre than men are, and have fresher perspectives to bring as well. That said, I find Buffalo’s Westside Gunn crew of interest and just wrote about two terrific EP-length Black Thought “mixtapes” that got extraordinarily little attention. At 48, he has an official solo debut album coming out on a major this week. About time. I’ll be on it. 

The #1 reissue of 2020 will probably be The Harry Smith B-Sides due October 16, a four-CD box with the flip side of every 78 Smith included on his Anthology of American Folk Music. The box was years in the making but since the events of this summer, the producers chose to omit three tracks due to racist language—Bill and Belle Reed’s “You Shall Be Free,” the Bentley Boys’ “Henhouse Blues,” Uncle Dave Macon’s “I’m the Child to Fight” (all on YouTube). All three songs feature the N-word in the lyrics. Do you agree with the producers’ decision and how does omitting those songs which feature the same language you’d hear on many rap albums differ from the decision made by Clear Channel radio during that debacle years ago, or the controversy regarding the music of Kate Smith or Michael Jackson or R. Kelly? I think the decision is the PC thing to do and I’m OK with it, but wonder what the Dean thinks. — LM, New York

In general I’m opposed to censoring history, and having checked out all three of these, only the Macon via YouTube, I think omitting them is a big mistake. These are very interesting songs. Uncle Dave Macon, who in my fuzzily unresearched recollection was less than any kind of racial progressive (as very few white Southerners were back then and all too few are now, which is not to make special claims for white Northerners), sending black people also ID’d as “farmers” south is singled out as proof of high cruelty, as slaves sent further south in the 19th century had always said. In “Henhouse Blues,” the C-word-that-rhymes-with-“moon”-not-N-word dreams of political success as a Black man only to further dream that—uh-oh, horror of horrors, maybe we should leave this politics thing alone—there’s a woman president. And the “You Shall Be Free” saga is amazing, more than I can detail. To sum up what I think I’ve found out, the melody was lifted from a Black spiritual. The Reeds’ version proved so fetching that unabashed tune thief Woody Guthrie recorded a rewrite called “We Shall Be Free,” which was then lifted by Bob Dylan in an “I Shall Be Free” that began its life on 1962’s Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as mostly womanizing and often arrantly sexist but also, in a few of its many verses, quite progressively race-conscious; in later iterations it attacked or at least mocked Barry Goldwater. The Reeds’ version includes a stanza that goes: “Some people say a N-word won’t steal/I caught three in my cornfield/One had a bushel, one had a peck” . . . and then, I think (but can this be?), “One had a rope around his neck.” So what can that mean? Is the thief packaged ready for lynching, or has he recently escaped a lynching? Assuming that word is “rope,” one or the other is what makes the most sense, but only if you assume making sense is the intention; after all, in the Guthrie version I’ve been playing “N-word” becomes “preacher,” a great idea by me, and what I hear as the rope line turns into, Genius avers, “Other one had a roastin’ ear down his neck,” a much less great idea if it’s even accurate. Should we really be discouraged from pondering these imponderables by omitting the Reeds’ recording from this crucial archival reissue? Or is it just that mere record buyers may take the complications the wrong way? Sorry—I’m absolutely opposed whether my own account is useful or totally misses the boat, because either is possible and further investigation is called for. And as a PS I’ll add that when Black rappers use the N-word, they’re exercising legitimate claims on it that no white person shares. So that’s a bullshit point.

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