Xgau Sez: October, 2021

Once more unto the mongering, the Stones sans Charlie, baseball avec sabermetrics, grading the second Velvets albums, appropriation vs. appreciation, Billie Eilish vs. Al Green


Not to be too much of a stickler, but there was a pretty big error in last month’s Xgau Sez. One reader asked you about your use of the term “meaning monger,” to which you responded that you could only find one use of the term on your website. I’m assuming the error came from differing punctuation of the term, because when I just Googled the word “monger” on your website, with minimal scrolling I found several other uses of the term. It showed up  in a review of the Romeo Must Die compilation, in two different pieces about Randy Newman, and in your 1984 Jazz and Pop essay. I stopped scrolling before I found the Tool review, so it’s very possible you’ve used the term elsewhere. So I would say that Austin’s “from time to time” seems to characterize your use of the term pretty well. — Ronan, Salt Lake City

Oxford’s “If you take hyphens seriously you will surely go mad” is one of my favorite stylistic and grammatical maxims, although I’ve always thought “take the hyphen” would be a sharper way to put it. Anyway, that’s what happened here—I obviously should have searched my site without the hyphen, although “monger” comes up without “meaning” much more often than with it—those two “ng”s are infelicitous and the main reason I declared “meaning-monger” “not exactly a witty term.” For the record, “monger” itself  is thrown around very loosely in English. The three most common usages are “fishmonger,” where it means “seller,” “warmonger,” where it means “advocator” or really “stirrer-upper,” and “whoremonger,” where it means “user” or perhaps even “exploiter.” In “meaning-monger,” it means some cross of either the first two or all three. As regards Tool, the explanatory and somewhat condescending “for the fantasy-fiction set” narrows it down to what I’m really getting at: a posited crossover between fantasy fiction and the more pretentious strains of metal, neither of which I have much use for. In the early Randy Newman review where it comes up, the “straightforward” meaning-mongers I compare unfavorably to him are probably—though that review was probably written way back in 1980 when I wrote a good chunk of the first Consumer Guide book and so I have to guess a little—the strophic folkies who were still kings of the literaryish-songwriter hill back then, when they were still far from my favorite musical breed though I’d grown to admire and even love a good many of them: the not all that strophic Joni Mitchell and the we-now-know amazingly durable John Prine, for instance.

Curious to know when you last saw the Stones in person and found yourself impressed by their live show, and if you think they’d be worth seeing again sans Charlie. — Joe Silva, Athens, Georgia

My last Stones concert was 2005 in Hartford—with my daughter Nina, who’s very glad she got to see them that night and at all, as was I, though by then I’d caught them well over half a dozen times, in DC and Toronto as well as NYC/NJ. Mick concluded the show by sprinting back and forth across a huge stage for some 65 yards. But that was enough—I intend to sit out this tour with no regrets. Note however that a younger friend, American Epic auteur Bernard MacMahon, told me recently that he was chuffed to have tickets for their L.A. show and I told him not to miss it—of course you want to see them at least once. So if you have the money I say the same to you if it’s a first and maybe not if you’ve been there done that. I loved and love Charlie, easily my favorite Stone, but he was already off this tour when he died, and Steve Jordan is an accomplished drummer who knows whose shoes it’s his j-o-b to fill.

Ask a question

Professional baseball is rapidly changing. Are you familiar with sabermetrics baseball and its implications? Or is this just too nerdy a thing to ask? — KBW, South Korea

I was reading sabermetrics pioneer Bill James as early as the ‘70s, I think—long ago, anyway. Thought all of his analysis was fascinating and a lot of it worth incorporating into the game. It really changed pitching, although not as much as the revised strength training stratagems that have generated so many near-100 fast balls. But if I remember correctly, even then I didn’t like how down he was on stolen bases—they’re too much fun (I loved how much the Yankees stole late in the past season). And when I watch the game with its radical shifts these days I sometimes get nostalgic for the old days, as well as wishing more players would settle for singles by exploiting shifts. In particular I still prefer human umpires calling balls and strikes even though what was clearly a bad call on a held-up swing prematurely ended the Dodgers-Giants championship game.

You’ve reviewed many Velvet Underground records, but a search reveals no writing or even mention of White Light/White Heat beyond saying you think “Sister Ray” is better white noise than Metal Machine Music. I know your favourite Velvets record is the self-titled album, but even so—White Light/White Heat, yay or nay? — Oscar, Johannesburg, South Africa

I don’t know exactly what you mean by search, but Googling my site I found the following sentence in the Lou Reed obit I crushed out for Spin one bleak Sunday afternoon in 2013. “What’s most remarkable about the Velvet Underground & Nico to White Light/White Heat to The Velvet Underground to Loaded sequence is how drastically these unfashionable New York minimalists changed up their arrantly simplistic sound, getting warmer all the way as they shed Nico and then John Cale and then the pregnant Mo Tucker while picking up the essential albeit much-mocked wimp Doug Yule.” And in my big 1978 Voice “Avant-Punk” manifesto there’s this: “Detractors labeled [the Velvets’] basic approach monotonous, but the distance within what was a relatively unexplored musical territory proved vast; Emmylou Harris will satisfy your yen for Linda Ronstadt a lot better than—to choose the closest pair I can think of—the Velvets’ ‘White Light/White Heat’ will satisfy your need for the Modern Lovers’ ‘Roadrunner.’”  Harder to find except for owners of my 1998 Harvard collection Grown Up All Wrong is this sentence in “Lou Reed, Average Guy”: “We were sophisticated enough to forgive White Light/White Heat the literally sophomoric survival ‘The Gift’ even if we weren’t astute enough to hear that ‘Sister Ray’ portended more than the Stones’ ‘Goin’ Home’ as well as Iron Butterfly’s ‘In-a-Gadda-Da Vida.’” So as you might have figured anyway, probably an A minus. And although I like the debut more, “Venus in Furs” has aged poorly and was something we tried to rationalize away even at the time.

Hello Bob! How would you define cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? — James Kean, Liverpool

I wouldn’t touch that one for anything less than big bucks—it’s a landmine requiring broad research, deep thought,  many words, and loads of time. But I appreciate your implicit point, which I take to be that the two concepts, one pejorative and one not, are intimately related. And I would go so far as to say that I’ve been a supporter of hybridity in culture for as long as I’ve been a critic not to mention alive and seriously doubt I could be talked out of it.

Billie Eilish is becoming the greatest interpretive pop singer since Al Green. Agree or Disagree? — Nicholas Auclair, Montreal

I dig her too, but this is monumentally silly. She’s 19 for Chrissake.

The Big Lookback: The Yankees Learn to Lose

As a topsy-turvy, streaky season draws to a close (or does it?) some thoughts on this year's Yankees and the Yankees of 47 years ago


Before there was such a thing as rock criticism, my dreams of popular culture journalism focused on sportswriting. Boxing was the favored athletic endeavor of the thinking litterateur once Hemingway exhausted bullfighting, and in the end it was A.J. Leibling’s The Sweet Science that nailed my conversion to journalism. But baseball had been my great love since well before I infuriated Mr. Brenner by declaring “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” inferior to “Casey at the Bat” in ninth grade, and from Bernard Malamud’s The Natural to Jimmy Breslin’s Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? I was immersing in baseball lit well pre-Liebling. My first published baseball piece was a 1971 review of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four for Fusion. But once ensconced at The Village Voice I leveraged my connections into half a dozen or so meaty, mostly reported essays on baseball and actually got to cover the 2000 Subway Series. So as this Yankee season draws to a close—or does it???—I thought the 1974 kickoff of my Voice baseball coverage would make a good Big Lookback.

I’ve been a Yankee fan since 1949, when I was seven. Slacked off in the ‘80s before I was brought back on board by now 82-year-old Yankee radio man John Sterling and his partner Suzyn Waldman, a rare woman sportscaster. Sometimes I watch on TV, but so as not to impose on Carola more often follow with an earphone on my pocket radio or, when I’m writing, via mlb.com’s Gameday feature, which reports each pitch a few maddening seconds after it is thrown. If the game’s a good one, however, Carola and I often watch the final inning or two together. So in this topsy-turvy year I can report that we’ve both not once but twice witnessed the maddening closer Aroldis Chapman load the bases with nobody out only to luck into a grounder to my favorite Yankee, sure-handed Gio Urshela, who then started a 5-4-3 triple play—three seconds, high anxiety to game over, and note that triple plays are rare and usually involve everybody running on a line drive. We also watched Gerrit Cole finish off a 129-pitch shutout and saw the last five innings of Corey Kluber’s no-hitter because I’d noticed how the game was going on Gameday.

But this has been a such streaky season—many injuries, many Covid sick weeks, many batting slumps, many losing streaks, a game Chapman lost on a grand slam. The worst of countless disappointments came one Sunday when I needed to get to the gym. So first I checked Gameday and saw that Domingo German was pitching a no-hitter with a 3-1 lead in the seventh with Yanks loading the bases. Looked pretty good, right? Only when I got back I checked the score and my team had lost 5-4 as the normally untouchable Jonathan Loaisiga imploded. I went off baseball for a week after that. I should mention too that both Kluber and German developed sore arms after their big games. Pitchers no longer train for long outings.

All of which is a long preamble to indicate why this Big Lookback is going up Tuesday rather than Wednesday as usual, which is to finesse a Tuesday night game certain to drastically inflect the Yanks’ ongoing 2021 storyline: Yanks at Fenway, winner makes the playoffs, loser goes home. In the best outcome, the game would be at Yankee Stadium. But given Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays, which I watched every minute of while Carola’s women’s group Zoomed in the dining room, I’ll take what we got, because this was the tensest game I can recall—ever. Crippled by sportswriting’s presumption of neutrality plus the reduction in tension a known outcome provides, nothing I’ve read about it conveys that. Tampa Bay has been the best team in the league all season and had just creamed the Yanks 12-2 Saturday after squeaking out a much less inevitable 4-3 win Friday. With the postseason just around the bend for both teams, neither relied on an ace, yet the scoreless innings rolled on. As they did it seemed ever more possible that one of the Rays’ many home run threats, particularly trading deadline Hall of Fame pickup Nelson Cruz although note the 33 smacked by .216-batting catcher Mike Zunino and there are others, would loft one to right. But it was still 0-0 after eight.

This may seem paranoid given that the Rays only got five hits including two doubles off an overachieving succession of Yankee pitchers, with sharp even though recently injured starter Jameson Taillon, inconsistent changeup specialist Wandy Peralta, and home run-prone Chad Green especially scary. Also scary was the play of the game, in which the sure-handed, all-out Urshela snagged a popup on the run and dove down the stairs of the Rays’ dugout, where he held on to the ball without breaking any bones—not only did he walk away on his own after five minutes, he stayed in the game. But five hits is a lot when in the first eight innings your guys only get one. Happily, the recently injured Loaisiga proved the team’s sharpest reliever once again, Chapman only gave up a walk, and in the bottom of the ninth Rougned Odor smacked hit number two, base-stealing whiz Tyler Wade took his place, a flyout and a second hit left Yanks on second and third, and Aaron Judge came up.

The six-nine Judge is on his way to being Mr. Yankee if he isn’t already—fleet and powerful, affable and modest, a very good guy. He hits a lot of home runs and strikes out too much. But this situation did not require a home run. So as if he knew exactly where the ball would go, he smacked a hard ground ball off the pitcher toward second and Wade raced home, beating the throw by plenty. Nobody knows what will happen tonight. But the chance that it’ll be that excruciating and exhilarating is minuscule.

Village Voice, Oct. 10, 1974: The Giants were a fallen empire—declining rather than defeated, more like Great Britain after World War II than Spain after the Armada, except that they had become so ordinary that they no longer warranted grandiose comparisons. A commitment to the Giants was an honorable thing, like a commitment to everyday life, its disappointments and boredoms and occasional triumphs all suffused with the half-pleasant, half-painful sense that there had once been something much better.

To root for Brooklyn, on the other hand, was to participate in a tradition of thwarted hope that had been mostly fictional all through the ‘40s, and had thus come to center on one overextended metaphor—the defeat of the Dodgers by the Yankees in the World Series. The masochism of the Dodger fan bordered on spiritual self-importance. This sort of shrill loyalty to the underdog is essential—it makes Jackie Robinson possible. But its cultural narrowness was exemplified by the Dodgers’ status (made semi-official by the letters of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) as the baseball arm or the C.P.U.S.A.

Which brings us to the Yankees, who were winners—not like Yankee Doodle, but like Yankee go home. By the ‘50s, Ruthian brawl and DiMaggio’s spreggiatura had given way to Mantle’s gum-chewing and beaver-shooting, and the team’s color came from its manager, an eccentric banker. The usual white Southerners were flanked by the usual immigrants, and there was even an American Indian, but the immigrants were often third-generation rather than second-, and the team was scandalously neglectful about investing in black players. All of which could be brushed aside by a young fan who happened to love the Yankees even more than he loved Willie Mays. Brought up by his Giant-fan father to value individuality, the young fan might identify with Phil Rizzuto, who was short. Or he might delight in old Johnny Mize with a swing like Ted Williams (almost) and so much gut he couldn’t get down for a hard grounder. Eventually, he might even ponder the mystery of Mantle, a boyish oaf who played the last half of his career in almost continual pain, his face impassive or grinning blankly except when one of his knees actually gave, and wonder what such self-control said about the supposed obtuseness of American power. But that wouldn’t be why he loved the Yankees. He wouldn’t even have a choice. He would love the Yankees because they always won.

And that was why most baseball fans hated them. To the rest of America, they of course embodied the unaccountable power of New York, but in New York they represented more than the then-powerful American league. Especially among Jews and blacks, hyperaware of factors like blondness (Mantle and Maris and Kubek) and Wasp names (Mantle and Woodling and Turley and Boyer and Richardson), they came to symbolize the triumphant arrogance of America itself. The Yankee-hater fantasy of that arrogance brought down grew so full and rich that it was eventually converted into a Broadway show.

The year the Yankees lost the pennant was 1954; I am not the only young fan who learned about death when his team lost the Labor Day doubleheader that was scheduled to inspire their miraculous recovery. Yet hate-filled fantasies to the contrary, total conquest is not the American dream, and when the Yanks came back to win for (yes) four more years, it was sufficient. This American dream wasn’t about happiness without human cost—we knew that the Athletics and the Indians and the Senators were failures, even if we weren’t anxious to empathize. And It wasn’t about happiness without struggle—our team hurt and fought and doubted and sometimes lost not only the battle but the war. No, it was even more dangerous than those. It was about happiness without surcease—the rainbow at the end of the rainbow, the ever-after that rolled on when the movie stopped.

For those lucky enough to care about them—a category that included, forget the Dodger propaganda, not only Park Avenue potentates and racist lumpen but good old-fashioned upwardly mobiles like me and maybe you—this dream was a healthy antidote to the infectious obsession with tragedy that seems to go with growing up in New York. It ended when the Yankees fired a colorful second-generation immigrant manager, Yogi Berra, who was nervy enough to win a pennant that Ralph (“The Major”) Houk—Berra’s boss and predecessor as well as his third string from playing days—believed he had lost. Berra’s replacement was a Middle Western world champion named Johnny Keane who was dead two years later, by which time the Major was the manager once again. For the next decade, as the Yankees were bought and sold by CBS, the team struggled madly to develop/buy a pennant winner. Until this year, they never had even a contender past Labor Day.

Perhaps it is not so strange that it was only after the Yankees’ ruin that this Yankee fan began to apprehend what might be called the nuances of compassion. The process was more subtle than learning to regret the human cost of happiness without surcease and being forced to suffer its struggle, although both were part of it. Ultimately it means coming to terms with the limitations of the game—not dumping the metaphor altogether, for to reject its playfulness would be cynical and to reject its finality sentimental, but to qualify the equation of winning and happiness. This is only one way of explaining it; admittedly the Yankees loom small in an experience that also included the Beatles, Vietnam, one birthday per year, and a relationship with a female Giant fan. But for the loyal fan—and many proved faint-hearted while others grew swinish—who followed the doomed hopefuls (Rich Beck! Roger Repoz! Ron Woods!) and useless downhill star-men (Rich McKinney/Felipe Alou/even Ron Swoboda) to the end of each season, which usually occurred in July, the team’s disastrous mediocrity was a lesson in humility.

In 1974, the Yankees tried something different. First Houk left, a move cheered by all sane loyalists. Then they tried to buy Dick Williams, according to legend the best manager in baseball. Fortunately stymied by Williams’s owner, they resorted to Bill Virdon, a freshman manager dismissed by Pittsburgh so arbitrarily that it’s possible the Yanks were doing penance for Yogi. They then proceeded to stock the club with the most motley collection of rejects and weirdos this side of the ‘62 Mets.

Submit an Xgau Sez question

These were not the big names and stellar prospects of our season in limbo. They were certified failures. Pat Dobson and Sam McDowell, former 20-game winners purchased for big cash and high ERA. Lou Piniella, a good-hit no-field lunk who has been observed lolling against the outfield fence during pitching changes. Bill Sudakis, who could run when he had knees. Elliott Maddox, who had hit .252 with two home runs in his big year. Walt Williams, a/k/a No-Neck, who began the season needing not only a periscope but contact lenses. Even after the season began the second-raters kept coming. Half our pitching staff was traded away for a neurotic first baseman and two pitchers whose 1973 ERA added up to 9.35. We went to the worst team in the league, soon to be managed by Dick Williams, for two discards: Rudy May, who had led the league in balks last year, and Sandy Alomar, a second-baseman who was the victim of the same kind of anti-mediocrity campaign that sent our own Horace Clarke to San Diego. We purchased Larry Gura from the minors, where he had lost as many games as he’d won; in the majors, his won-lost over four years was 3-7.

Like Met fans, but without their occasional predilection for low camp, real Yankee fans—the ones who continued to swell the club’s dwindling attendance—are blessed with optimism. With our heritage of happiness, we automatically assumed that these ragtags might be champions. By July we were last. Our best home run hitter had yet to power one out of Shea Stadium, where we were playing while The House That Ruth Built was redecorated. Our second-best home run hitter set an April record with 11, then settled down to one a month. Our best pitcher, the sole survivor from 1964, was disabled for the rest of the season. Our All-Star catcher couldn’t throw overhand. We had lost 20 of our last 21 in the home park of the league leaders. And yet the best of us knew that the season wasn’t over.

As you may have gathered from reading the back page of the News in the subway, it wasn’t. The Yankees almost went all the way, and if the Yankee-haters don’t prevail, Bill Virdon (“I don't lie because I hate having to remember what I said”) will be manager of the year. He moved the petulant Bobby Murcer to right, where he belonged, and came up with a fleet black center-fielder who hit .300, Elliott Maddox. He gave Lou Piniella and Pat Dobson and Jim Mason the chance each deserved, and got top form or better from Rudy May and Sandy Alomar and Larry Gura. (He also held on to Walt Williams, who hit .113. Wait till next year.)

The Yankee ragtags were an exceptionally resilient team—in a pattern I noticed, they would often lose the first game of a series and then take the next two. By the time they swept aside the Fenway jinx in September, a miracle I was privileged to witness in person, they looked like winners. But the Baltimore Orioles, now the oldest American League dynasty, took the Yankees three straight in their final series, just like the Yankees used to. The momentum, not to mention the lead, was theirs. The Yankees didn’t choke, winning eight of their next 10 games. Unfortunately, neither did the Orioles.

One of the pleasures of the ‘74 Yankees was their polyglot, multiracial flakiness, right down to their Jew (the somewhat schmucky Ron Blomberg) and their blaek-who-was-studying-Judaism (the inspired Elliott Maddox). They fought, threatened to quit, razzed each other hard. The final Sunday of the regular season, after their seventh straight win over Cleveland had been cancelled by yet another Baltimore comeback, they got drunk on the way to Milwaukee. Bill Sudakis and Rick Dempsey, important early-season stopgaps who no longer saw action, got into a brawl, and Bobby Murcer tried to stop it. Baltimore won again Monday and Tuesday, making the Yanks’ Tuesday night game a mathematical necessity. Murcer couldn’t play.

He had injured his arm sliding, yes, and he had reinjured it in the fight. The bat loss was minor; Alec Johnson, another weirdo picked up late in the season, was an adequate replacement. But although Murcer had been a shitty center-fielder, his speed and glove and arm were ideal in right, where the lead-footed Piniella would have to replace him. The Yanks scored twice in the seventh with Johnson batting in a run. And in the Milwaukee eighth, it happened.

Routine fly to deep right. Maddox and Piniella move toward the ball; Piniella, who has long since belied that no-field bullshit, calls for it and then, inexplicably, shies away. A pure lapse, pressure drop, a triple. The next batter sends a sinking liner to center. Maddox, whose shallow center has been a delight all season, tried to shoestring it. Another lapse. One run will tag up even if Maddox succeeds, while if the ball goes through . . . It goes through, another triple, and the season. Had Maddox safetied the ball for a single, the Yanks would have escaped with the inning and the ballgame. Piniella’s error was more horrible, but it is the image of Maddox, my favorite of favorites, that stays in my mind. Not the ball spurting or Frank Messer grimly analyzing. Just Maddox, diving foolishly, over and over again.

This is a new thing for the Yankees. We always won the close ones, always; when we lost, we lost big, like for nine years. It all feels very Dodgerish. I can even say wait till next year, but I can’t be certain. So many unknowns playing over their heads, or were they? It could be failure, or happiness without surcease—if that’s what I want to dream about.

And yet when I get Maddox out of my head I feel very happy about baseball. It’s one of the few things that makes me feel happy these days. And one nice thing about my Yankee youth is that I like to be happy. The team was my entree to that American dream, a dream denied to a lot of New Yorkers, and it’s nice to think that this flaky New York team can partake of that myth. Meanwhile, the Dodgers won in their division, and I’m rooting for them to go all the way.

Avoiding Wet-Bulb 35C

Kim Stanley Robinson, "The Ministry for the Future" (2020, 563 pp.)


Kim Stanley Robinson’s least conventional novel, the 563-page The Ministry for the Future, is a book every politically sentient person should read. But permit me a warning based on my own experience: don’t start it at bedtime. Given that its subject is a climate emergency we are quickly recognizing is existential for our species if not strictly speaking the lump of molten rock we currently occupy, this is on the whole a reassuring book—even optimistic in its way. But the 12-page first chapter, which takes place in India just five years from now, is so inconducive to pleasant dreams that it sent me to an ambien bottle I open as little as possible.

What’s most unconventional about The Ministry for the Future is that it’s too long on policy ideas to make much room for characters. Foremost of these by far is an Irish bureaucrat with the pointedly dull name Mary Murphy, a union lawyer turned foreign minister who comes to head the largely symbolic Zurich-based Ministry for the Future, charged by the UN’s 2029 Framework Convention on Climate Change with determining how to apply the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to “the world's future generations of citizens”—that is, to human beings yet unborn. Her chief conduit to the actually existing outside world is Frank May, the fulcrum of that first chapter. A stateless Muslim who proves to be Frank’s ex-wife reports occasionally from a soul-sapping succession of humane Swiss refugee camps where she and her children are sequestered, a few Ministry functionaries are more than names on the roll call Robinson provides, and Frank befriends an airship pilot with a zoology sideline toward the end. A patient artificial intelligence named Janus Athena makes several major conceptual breakthroughs. But only Mary and Frank emerge as vivid human beings. There’s action enough—the grueling trek through the Alps that some bad guys compel Mary to undertake ranks high among outdoorsman Robinson’s many vivid hiking scenes, and having spent more time in Antarctica than any novelist ever, he situates several icy-dicey chapters on that climatically crucial continent as well. But this remains a dauntingly abstract fiction.

For one thing, it’s festooned with gnomic essays on such subjects as, for instance, the sun, photons, planet earth, economics, capital, ideology, the market, economics, encryption, extinction, cognitive errors, economics, caribou, Götterdamerung Syndrome, the euthanasia of the rentier class, pay scales in the Navy, joy as the meaning of life, and—especially—economics. These impede narrative flow by definition, especially those you don’t altogether comprehend, but they also brim with entertaining prose, which given how large economics looms throughout is a boon and then some. Much although not all of the Ministry’s work involves wresting macroeconomics—a discipline or pseudo-discipline “ideological to the point of astrology” in which the U.S., China, Russia, and an uneasy German-French axis maintain control of “the most wealth-inequal moment in human history” by manipulating currency and credit, and if that seems a little vague I apologize. Believe me, I’m even worse when it comes to explaining my sign.

How an unmilitarized cohort of conference junkies brainstorming in a Switzerland “rich in part because [it’s] the bagman for criminals worldwide” manage to keep our planet from becoming a place where “things fall apart and you’re eating your cat” is the big drama of Robinson’s novel. Two major elements of their success are ultimately attributable to Janus Athena. One is “open source instruments that mimic the functions of all the big media sites.” (“So, the decapitation of Facebook,” Mary enthuses, to which the AI responds, “And all the rest like it.”) That one we presumably get. Harder to grasp is an even more crucial innovation: bank-backed hundred-year “carbon coins” that pay investors including monster corporations and ordinary people to “sequester” carbon rather than burn or sell it. If you say so, Mr. Robinson. Back in ordinary people’s comfort zone is a whole chapter devoted to do-gooding small fry from a worldwide array of nations: “I have been sent to you by Ecuador’s Cloudforest Agroforestry,” or “I speak to you for Senegal’s Great Green Wall Initiative, also Rolling Back the Desert.” Just as familiar, for better and/or worse, are activists who include the Children of Kali conspirators who tell Frank he’s not tough enough for them. The nonviolent interlopers who take over Davos don’t get much bang for their buck in the end. But blow enough jetliners out of the sky (many in a single action soon nicknamed Crash Day) and fuel-sucking high-speed air travel suddenly seems less convenient. As Robinson sums up: “The war on terror? It lost.”

Submit an Xgau Sez question

About 50 pages in there’s a very long sentence I suspect will ring a bell with many reading this, all less privileged than those it targets but nonetheless familiar with the feckless stratagem it describes: “But early in the twenty-first century it became clear that the planet was incapable of sustaining everyone alive at Western levels, and at that point the richest pulled away into their fortress mansions, bought the governments or disabled them from action against them, and bolted their doors to wait it out until some poorly theorized better time, which really came down to the remainder of their lives, or perhaps the lives of their children if they were feeling optimistic—beyond that, après moi le déluge.” You’ve been there, right? Most of those reading this have accepted the global warming thesis while desperately hoping, against evidence that keeps accruing, that maybe things won’t be as bad as the doomsayers figure. But as scientists keep devising ways to mitigate glacial melt or coral collapse or protein shortfall, many of us have gradually been prioritizing environmental issues on our pathetic wishlists of desirable political outcomes. So has Robinson, who quietly abandoned the vision of Mars as a plausible Terran safety valve that jump-started his sci-fi career in his Mars trilogy after NASA discovered poisonous calcium perchlorate there. But where just five years ago his New York 2140 conjured an almost comic vision of a metropolis under water, he seems to have lost his taste for joking around.

So in May 2020 he published a New Yorker essay observing, too optimistically you could say but let’s pretend it’ll work out that way, that the pandemic might well prefigure a world in which citizens will battle catastrophe by taking scientists seriously. And this past August 20 he took a rather more pessimistic tack via a rather less humanistic journalistic bulwark: the London-based, Japanese-owned, centrist-conservative Financial Times. I strongly recommend this superb piece of polemical prose, and for those who shy away from character-deficient 568-page novels it’s certainly better than nothing, though easier to understand if you read The Ministry for the Future first. So let me close my fiction review by summing up the essay. The two are intimately connected.

The Ministry for the Future, the essay reports, was written in 2019, and although in some ways it was quite prophetic, it got one thing seriously wrong: “several important developments—ones I described in my novel as happening in the 2030s—I see now are already well begun. My timeline was completely off; events have accelerated yet again.” Moreover, the adaptation plutocrats in their fortress mansions prescribe as the way poorer people can combat their environmental challenges is quite literally impossible. “Human beings can’t live in conditions above the heat-index number called wet-bulb 35C, a measure of air temperature plus humidity. We didn’t evolve for such conditions and, when they occur, we quickly overheat and die of hypothermia. And in July this year, wet-bulb 35s were briefly reached in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.”

Speaking generally, Robinson goes on, we already have a structure with which to combat heat death: the 2015 Paris Agreement Trump pulled the U.S. out of and Biden rejoined. But as Robinson goes on to explain, the mechanisms of nationalistic market capitalism render the Agreement’s goals very difficult to achieve, because they’re up against all the nations including our own with serious wealth tied up in carbon-based fuel stockpiles that are worth nothing until they’re extracted from the earth and released into the atmosphere, thus accelerating humanity’s extinction. “So unless we make other arrangements, there will be a fire sale.” Markets aren’t designed to generate healthier alternatives to such a sale; neither, bet on it, are grotesquely energy-inefficient cryptocurrencies. But at least “central banks” are now “investigating” something called “carbon quantitative easing,” a close relative of the novel’s carbon coins. Robinson believes this is a positive sign.

Unfortunately, however, it comes with a major caveat: “It will take far more than carbon quantitative easing to finesse the coming years.” So we should all be grateful to Kim Stanley Robinson for doing his bit. Pleasant dreams. Pass the ambien.

Favorite vs. Best vs. Whatever

Ballots for Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs poll and some thoughts on precious dollops of pleasure


As I was saying a year ago, voting in the Rolling Stone 500 greatest albums sweepstakes was real work, but it was also fun to do, especially once the great lost rock critic I live with was invited to participate, whereupon we livened up a whole month of pandemic honing our respective top 50s. But when Rolling Stone hit us up for singles ballots I scoffed. As somebody who’s been grading music for over half a century, I’m convinced singles can’t be assayed like albums, because they split the incalculable difference between “favorite” and “best” a little too fine. Whatever exactly “great” means, it implies at least a portion of enduring gravitas or historical significance. But that’s not how great singles work. By definition they’re moments, moments that compel the attention of a wide swatch of listeners with precious dollops of pleasure, excitement, exhilaration. Often, admittedly, these are augmented by a jolt of meaning, although there are many exceptions, with Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock’s 1988 “It Takes Two” a classic example for me. But in addition they’re generally equipped with what were once happily designated “hooks,” although that term now comes smelling slightly of declasse boomer retro. How the hell you assign aesthetic value to your “favorites” while straightening out this theoretical tangle I can’t tell you now and hope I’m never compelled to figure out, especially for free. So I scoffed.

Only then I learned that the great lost rock critic I mentioned was already, that word again, hooked, and had gotten to where she wanted to talk about it. So I got hooked as well and began to poke at a list of my own—see final results of both efforts below. But we took different approaches. Carola really did try to put her true favorites in true order of preference, although she admits the order got sloppier as she passed 20. My own method was more cynical as to not just order, alphabetical by artist according to WordPerfect 5.1 (hence “Al Green” begins with A, hence group names sans “The”), but also judgment—I elected to put my thumb on the scale for records from one period (the ‘50s) and one genre (girl group) I assumed the electorate would neglect.

That said, I’m so glad Carola’s top 10 is her true top 10, because it reminds me of various ways I love her. “Heat Wave” (two words, darlin’) has been her favorite record for as long as I’ve known her, because as much as the second-place Beatles it was what drew her back to rock and roll in a Cambridge where folk music ruled. But also find three songs from this century: the Moldy Peaches young love song we’ve loved from the pushing-60 moment we heard it, the Etta-sings-Otis married love song we fell for shortly after Etta died in 2012, and the breakup blowup that hooked us on our beloved Wussy. Plus a Coasters song that hit the radio when she was barely 12 and a Chuck Berry song she first heard at my place at 27 and the Clash love song that anchored our punk years and the Sam Cooke trifle she ignored at 12 but now loves enough to curate in its Aretha variants.

As for my list, it is what it is—undefinitive by design. My attempts to stuff the ballot box yielded the scant results I feared. By my count, which I can’t swear is exact because trawling and retrawling through a list of 500 anythings is dizzying, error-prone work, 14 pieces of ‘50s rock and roll made the 300-odd voters’ 500 plus Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy,” John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” and “So What,” the lead track of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and a plausible candidate for greatest song or whatever it is of the decade. “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode” plus the non-‘50s “Promised Land” seems a reasonable read of Chuck Berry’s very peak, whereas Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock” and “Heartbreak Hotel” over nonfinishers “Don’t be Cruel” and “All Shook Up” do not. I was pleased to see Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You” representing blotto insanity and “Bo Diddley” representing Bo Diddley and the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” representing the doowop it epitomizes only there was so much more. Black, gay Little Richard gets two picks to white, straight Jerry Lee’s and Buddy Holly’s one, and OK then. But although Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” and Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say” are undeniable peaks, it would have been nice to see “Folsom Prison Blues” join “Georgia on My Mind” in representing their long, fruitful maturities.

Girl group, on the other hand, got completely disrespected, starting with two ‘50s picks of mine for which I expected no better: not just the Bobbettes’ praisesong for their high school principal “Mr. Lee,” in behalf of which I’ve long labored as a one-man preservation society, but the Chantels’ “Maybe,” which was covered by Janis Joplin (who actually, um, failed to make the 500 at all). Beyond the Shangri-Las’ 316th-place “Leader of the Pack” and, thank you Lord, the Shirelles’ 151st-place “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” the relevant finishers are producers’ records, Phil Spector’s Ronettes and Crystals and a bunch of Motown: four Supremes hits, a sum not many males equalled, the Marvellettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” and, yeah yeah yeah, “Heat Wave” (ranked 257th, so it may not even have needed Carola’s first-place points). The biggest disgrace in this category is the shutout afforded the magical Jaynetts one-off “Sally Go Round the Roses,” one of those impossible flukes, two weeks at No. 2 in Billboard in September of 1963, that its adepts never forget. Luc Sante’s essay about it flirts proudly and atypically with mysticism.

Submit an Xgau Sez question

I could go on, but I promised myself I wouldn’t. Instead I’ll just tell you a little about what it was like to scan the list—kindly provided by friends at Rolling Stone without the accompanying critical celebrations, which I’ve yet to crack and may never read even though I’m sure some of it is superb because I’m even surer that life is short in a much crueler way than singles are. It honors a few mostly newish songs I’ve never heard and many older ones I’ve long since half forgotten. But what impressed me most deeply was how often a mere title on a list, down to 250 anyway, made me grunt or moan briefly in pleasure recalled—how many selections struck me as deserving even if my deep preferences canted differently. “Good Vibrations”? I can still remember Ellen Willis and me listening gobsmacked on East 10th Street as it emanated from the car radio. Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”? Inspired a whole piece that ended with Carola putting her back out. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? A world changer I thought merely pretty darn good first time I heard it. The Meters’ “Cissy Strut”? Ziggy-defining three-minute masterpiece. “It Takes Two”? Just Saturday played it four times and decided that it smoked James Brown’s magnificent nine-minute Carola pick “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing,” which it samples. “Superstition”? Another career-making stop-the-car masterstroke that had me envisioning racial breakthroughs that did not ensue because there’s only so much pop music can do and it’s never enough. “Redemption Song”? On my list, on Carola’s list, has been known to make me cry. Missy Elliott’s “Work It”? Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”? Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes”? How come we didn’t think of that one?

That’s the way best-anything lists are, however. So Carola and I would like to depart this essay apologizing in unison for having somehow neglected the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” which each of us has been known to call the most beautiful song ever written. And speaking solely for myself, how the hell did I forget Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk,” a work of art that without question is a major reason I’m crushing out this prose all too deep into dinnertime?

Robert Christgau: 50 Greatest Singles, alphabetical by artist according to WordPerfect 5.1

  1. Ad Libs, “Boy From New York City”

  2. Al Green, “Love and Happiness”

  3. Beatles, “She Loves You”

  4. Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Redemption Song”

  5. Bob Dylan, “Brownsville Girl”

  6. Bobbettes, “Mr. Lee”

  7. Brad Paisley, “Then”

  8. Cadillacs, “Speed-O”

  9. Chantels, “Maybe”

  10. Chuck Berry, “Maybellene”

  11. Chuck Berry, “Promised Land”

  12. Chuck Berry, “Rock and Roll Music”

  13. Chuck Berry, “Roll Over Beethoven”

  14. Clash, “Janie Jones”

  15. Coasters, “Searchin’”

  16. Danny and the Juniors, “At the Hop”

  17. Del Vikings, “Come Go With Me”

  18. Dixie Cups, “Iko Iko”

  19. Dolly Parton, “Jolene”

  20. Exciters, “Tell Him”

  21. Fats Domino, “I’m in Love Again”

  22. Five Satins, “In the Still of the Night”

  23. Funkadelic, “Maggot Brain”

  24. Funky Four Plus One, “That’s the Joint”

  25. George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”

  26. Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive”

  27. Gogol Bordello, “Ultimate”

  28. James McMurtry, “We Can’t Make It Here”

  29. James Brown, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”

  30. James Brown, “Sex Machine”

  31. Jaynettes, “Sally Go Round the Roses”

  32. Little Willie John, “Fever”

  33. Little Richard, “Tutti Frutti”

  34. Monotones, “Book of Love”

  35. Randy Newman, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”

  36. Ray Charles, “What’d I Say”

  37. New York Dolls, “Personality Crisis”

  38. Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack”

  39. Shirelles, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”

  40. Shirelles, “Tonight’s the Night”

  41. Shirley and Lee, “Let the Good Times Roll”

  42. Silhouettes, “Get a Job”

  43. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”

  44. Stooges, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”

  45. T.S. Monk, “Bon Bon Vie”

  46. Taana Gardner, “Heartbeat”

  47. Van Morrison, “Jackie Wilson Said”

  48. Willie Nelson, “September Song”

  49. Wussy, “Airborne”

  50. Youssou N’Dour, “Birima”

Carola Dibbell: 50 Greatest Singles, ranked by favorites (after first 20 ranking is mostly approximate)

  1. Martha and the Vandellas, “Heatwave”

  2. Beatles, “She Loves You” 

  3. Etta James, “Cigarettes and Coffee”

  4. Aretha Franklin, “You Send Me”

  5. Clash, “Janie Jones”

  6. Wussy, “Airborne”

  7. Coasters, “Searchin’”

  8. Moldy Peaches, “Jorge Regula”

  9. Chuck Berry, “Nadine”

  10. Bob Marley, “Redemption Song”

  11. Aretha Franklin, “Think”

  12. Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue”

  13. Beach Boys, “Darling”

  14. James Brown, “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing”

  15. Randy Newman, “Louisiana 1927” 

  16. Little Richard, “Tutti Frutti” 

  17. Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive”

  18. New York Dolls, “Personality Crisis”

  19. Otis Redding, “Dock of the Bay”

  20. Marvin Gaye, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”

  21. Ray Charles, “What’d I Say”

  22. Michael Jackson, “Beat It”  

  23. Beatles, “Norwegian Wood”

  24. James Brown, “Sex Machine” 

  25. Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

  26. James McMurtry, “We Can’t Make it Here”

  27. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “You Really Got a Hold on Me”

  28. Kanye West, “Gold Digger”

  29. Jaynettes, “Sally Go Round the Roses”

  30. Run-D.M.C., “It’s Like That”

  31. Nirvana, “Heart Shaped Box”

  32. Funky Four Plus One, “That’s the Joint”

  33. Robyn, “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do”

  34. Velvet Underground, “After Hours”

  35. Missy Elliott, “Work It”

  36. Silhouettes, “Get a Job”

  37. Elvis Presley, “Hound Dog”

  38. Fats Domino, “Blueberry Hill”

  39. Little Richard, “Good Golly Miss Molly” 

  40. Neil Young, “Don’t be Denied”

  41. Imagination, “Just an Illusion” 

  42. Panjabi MC, “Beware of the Boys”

  43. Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”

  44. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message”

  45. Patti Smith, “Piss Factory”

  46. Taana Gardner, “Heartbeat”

  47. M.I.A., “Paper Planes” 

  48. Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack”

  49. Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA”

  50. Danny and the Juniors, “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay”

    Subscribe now

Loading more posts…