Xgau Sez: June, 2021

Lousy (or not) Stones albums, world champion Beatles albums, some musical geniuses, some upbeat albums, and whither rock & roll? Plus: the story of 1974's Consumer Guide to America's Yogurts.


I really enjoy your reviews and your writing in general. I do notice that you sort of pick your favorites, though—you gave the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work an A and Steel Wheels a B+??? You cannot be serious with these positive reviews—these are two albums that even the band will tell you are terrible. I love the Rolling Stones but Dirty Work might be one of the worst-produced albums of all time. I mean it’s just bad. Do you honestly pull out this album out still? As for A Bigger Bang, it’s OK but nowhere near as good as the review you give. It’s sort of a very good imitation of a Stones album. “Streets of Love” is just terrible second-rate Mick Jagger solo album material. You honestly think these albums I mentioned above don’t top any of Queen’s first six albums? I mean really? — Adam Marr, New York City

What a strange question even disregarding the fact that I gave Steel Wheels a B minus, not a B plus. Though I’m glad you like my work, I’m sad that some basic principles haven’t gotten through. A major one is that in the end people like what they like, and that a simple way of understanding the critic’s job is that critics should among other things try and explain what their opinions/responses are and where they come from. As has already come up in this space, I’m not a Queen fan even though, inspired mostly by my daughter, I’ve warmed to their precise, campy comic grandeur. When I find time to explore, I might listen more intensively. But if I live to 100 I’ll never find time to hear much less immerse in their first six albums. Maybe my feelings will shift a little, but I’ll never like them that much, and at best I’ll limit myself to a best-of or two. Moreover, the Stones are inscribed a lot deeper on my sensorium than on yours—I’ve been a sucker for a fundamental groove I attribute mostly to Keith Richards and the great Charlie Watts since “It’s All Over Now” hit the airwaves in the fall of 1964. And even though Jagger isn’t my kind of guy as a human being, their sound plus his flair sparked into life longer than most aging rockers could manage. My unconventional fondness for Dirty Work remained in place last time I checked—a tremendously underrated album especially given the pass the Stones got on the 1983 Under Cover, its opprobrium based mostly on the overblown reaction to the echoey way producer Steve Lillywhite did drums, which is neither here nor there as far as I’m concerned. Replaying A Bigger Bang for the first time since 2006, my A minus seems right—the opening “Rough Justice” is a strikingly ironic/acerbic expression of  both Jagger’s musical gift and his romantic limitations and the songwriting strong is throughout, though “Streets of Love” is no high point. In addition to the CG review, I wrote longer about A Bigger Bang for Blender in 2005 and then reviewed a 2006 show of theirs for the same mag. I stand by everything I wrote. Check it out—especially the show review.

In your recent Too Much Joy review you quip that they aren’t Randy Newman meets the Clash cause those acts are genius while Too Much Joy just have high IQs. I’ve noticed that genius seems to be a word that you are hesitant to use to describe musicians. It got me thinking, how do you define genius when it comes to musical artists? Is it based on their sonic innovation, language, what you think they’d get in an IQ test, or something else? Also, who are the definite geniuses in music, and do any/all of the following qualify: Prince, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Kanye West, David Bowie, M.I.A., El DeBarge, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Stevie Wonder, Taylor Swift, James Brown, Billie Eilish, Captain Beefheart, Frank Ocean, and Brian Wilson. — Anonymous, Europe

First of all, I use the word “genius” plenty—too much, probably; Google says it gets 1130 hits on my site where “talent” comes in at 1050 and “smart” at 913. Second, musical genius doesn’t have much to do with IQ, certainly not, for instance, the 175 that talented non-genius Bob Mould claims in his memoir, though 120-125 would probably be a good idea just to utilize and kick-start the musical genius properly. Third, most of the musical geniuses I can think of are Black: on your list James Brown above all with Prince second, maybe Wonder, not DeBarge or Ocean, but how come you left out Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin? (And Louis Armstrong! Duke Ellington even though he’s never been a favorite of mine! Thelonious Monk! Miles Davis!) The one obvious white genius who comes to mind is easy and isn’t on your list: Bob Dylan. Ditto for Joni Mitchell whatever her vanities, Lennon probably, Eminem in his fucked up way conceivably, and I definitely wouldn’t rule out Swift. The others less, with understandable candidate Beefheart exemplifying near-genius’s limitations. Billie Eilish PLUS HER BROTHER, THAT’S DEFINITELY A PARTNERSHIP, might qualify in 10 years and might not. When I wrote my Billboard obit of George Jones I pulled out the G-word, which didn’t seem preposterous, especially for someone on a death deadline. As for Randy Newman and the Clash, both come close enough to justify a good joke, Newman in particular given his soundtrack sideline. And now I declare an end to this party game.

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Did the Beatles ever make an A plus album? — Faizal Ali, Minneapolis

Ordinarily I skip A plus questions but this one I couldn’t resist. How could I not nominate the two I put on my Rolling Stone listSgt. Pepper and The Beatles’ Second Album, the latter of which most Beatles scholars don’t believe counts if they even acknowledge it exists? But because so much of my early Beatles listening was their U.S. albums, I’m not qualified to distinguish among the “official” UK versions that preceded Sgt. Pepper. Moreover, while I feel and understand the artistic skill and historical momentousness of prime candidate Rubber Soul, in fact I only cream for three of its songs: “Norwegian Wood,” “Girl,” and “In My Life.” A plusses have to do more than that for me.

hello mr. christgau, i am a big fan of your writing and music ratings. i often agree with your reviews, except for a few rap records that i disagree with haha. anyway, i would like to know what “happy/upbeat” records are some of your favorites? i am talking records in the likes of: rilo kiley’s under the blacklight; van morrison’s moondance; donald fagen’s the nightfly and robyn’s body talk. these are some of my favorite records to listen to and i would like to know more albums like them that i should listen to. — gavin highly, minneapolis

These things are so personal. I mean, I love The Nightfly and Carola adores it. But Donald Fagen “happy/upbeat”? That pathological ironist? How??? Still, I thought it might be fun to find something suitable. Two records I go to for that sort of thing are Franco & Rochereau’s Omona Wapi and Manu Chao’s Proxima Estacion Esperanza, but both may be too world-musicky for your tastes. Either ‘70s New York Dolls album? KaitO’s Band Red, a recent if admittedly esoteric rediscovery around here? The New Pornographers’ Whiteout Conditions? Toots and the Maytals’ Funky Kingston, which another reader just excoriated me so passionately for giving it an A minus rather than a full A that I replayed it and found it was still an A minus for me. Hey wait, I’ve got just the thing: The Beatles’ Second Album. Guaran-fucking-teed.

I have been an avid reader of robertchristgau.com since I was in high school (now about 10 years ago). During that critical time in my life, my taste has evolved a great deal, and your writing has proved a major influence on that evolution, helping me become attuned to and fall in love with (broadly speaking) African music, rock-n-roll, and classic soul. Having fallen in love with those (meta)genres, however, I can’t help but feel a bit melancholy at the increasing marginality of rock-n-roll and classic soul songforms and archetypes in the popular consciousness (music from the African continent being marginal in the US by definition). Is it possible we might have a revival of interest in these ways of doing music? Do you think the great music of the ‘50s and ‘60s can translate to a new audience raised on the internet? Will bands ever be a “thing” again? Am I being overly pessimistic? PS: Special thanks for introducing me to Youssou N’Dour & Étoile de Dakar with your A+. — Grace Brown, Montreal

What can I say? Popular music evolves just like any art form—Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven were revolutionary in the late ‘20s and still sound amazing today, but while it’s possible to imagine some historically inclined imitator reviving that sound to an extent, that’s a long shot technically and an impossibility culturally—just wouldn’t strike the kind of same spark, in the audience or among the musicians themselves (plus, of course, no Satchmo). It’s distressed me for many years that the rock and roll of the ‘50s is an unmapped antiquity for most young listeners—to me the great Chuck Berry and Coasters and Buddy Holly records plus many doowop one-shots (let’s hear it for, hmm, how about Johnnie and Joe’s “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea”) are thrilling on the face of it, but to listeners your age (assuming for the moment that your autobiographical profile is factual) that music has been aesthetically inaccessible for decades. Almost the same goes for soul stylings, although a few aging holdouts as well as some young multiformalists like (Brown University graduate) Jamila Woods continue to work in that general area. But with bands it’s different. There are still plenty of bands, some even g-g-b-d or g-k-b-d, exploring that option, and still venues for them too.

I was wondering when this summer tasting of yogourts from around America happened. — Rishi Patel, London, Ontario

Forgive me for rendering it yogurt from here on—just learned that your Canadian spelling came to be because it’s bilingual, correct in French as well as English as Canadian law requires. Anyway, I no longer remember the sequence, but there was an editor named John Lombardi at a short-lived Playboy-backed girlie mag dubbed Oui, a purportedly “hipper” variant as I recall, who was taken with the letter-grading thing. (He also assigned me an Al Green profile that ended up in Boston’s Real Paper which changed my view of rock history after I plumbed the Joel Whitburn books and learned that many Black artists—not Green, he was too young—had been scoring minor hit singles in the lower reaches of the Billboard chart in the early ‘60s, when radio heads like myself were unaware they existed.) I suggested that the much more food-savvy Carola Dibbell collaborate with me on consumer guides, let’s lower-case the term, to beer, which occasioned many naps as well as a search for flatulence medications, and coffee, which once had me roaring down West 8th Street in my Toyota at 45 miles an hour in pursuit of some jerk who’d cut me off. The yogurt edition, which I’m amazed got published (with a comically salacious illo of course) we researched when we undertook a four-month road trip across the U.S. in 1973 in that Toyota—stored our dairy purchases in an ice chest in the back. We took a lot of notes and came up with language on the run when we could. Most of the writing on all the food pieces was Carola’s, who’s terrific at physical description, and looking back I love how funny this piece is. “One of the worst yogurts in America. Smells like fresh chemicals, and the blueberry looks like extract of used typewriter ribbon. Cheap and gummy.” “The best supermarket yogurt. Although most of the flavors were not special, you could spill the tart, cheesecakey orange into a sherbert glass and call it dessert.” “They say the best yogurt is the yogurt you make yourself, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. In Laramie, however, there are no reasonable alternatives. George Szanto’s first batch melted in our mouths, something like snow. The second had some rough residue and was too sour. But it was fresh, and it sure beat Meadow Gold Viva.” “One of the worst. The aftertaste penetrated its most lurid flavors, and the boysenberry was gray.” Or here’s the long-running Colombo, now a proven quality brand that earned its A as surely as Randy Newman: “The blueberry, with its dusky blue color, generous strewings of berries, and creamy consistency is the best in America, as is the all-natural honey vanilla. When they make it right, even the wheat germ and honey is better than you can mix yourself.”

The Big Lookback: Joy of Cooking

The 50th anniversary of Joy of Cooking’s first-of-its-kind first album


I was eyeballing this April, 1971, Village Voice piece—which is collected in my now out-of-print 1973 Any Old Way You Choose It comp and on my website like almost all my writing—as a 50th anniversary special to launch And It Don’t Stop’s monthly Big Lookback feature. But then Peter Stampfel finally delivered his crowning achievement and it had to wait. So here a month late is a reminder that Joy of Cooking’s first-of-its-kind album once existed and the news that it still sounds fine, as I’ve determined by streaming it four or five times in the past month.

White “rock” wasn’t exclusively male in the post-girl group ‘60s. But its women—the most notable among them Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Cass Elliot, Michelle Phillips, and coming up on the outside the Stone Poneys’ Linda Ronstadt—almost never played instruments. Yes there was San Francisco’s all-female Ace of Cups, wan in my reluctant judgment then and equally so in their recent revival, as well as the much livelier but still limited L.A. guitar band Fanny. But Joy of Cooking’s matched lead songwriters and canny sweet-gritty vocal interplay plus the way Toni Brown’s piano led Terry Garthwaite’s guitar over a three-piece male rhythm section rendered this a conceptually shrewd band with discernible feminist content in a time when the women’s movement was less than three years old. The polyrhythms point had weight—already the rock four-four could signify a dominance-and-submission dynamic metal was about to power up. And although I didn’t fully put it together until I reconceived my take on this album for the first Consumer Guide book in 1980, the songs had teeth: “The two protagonists are united by one overriding fact—they’re victimized as wives. And it’s about time somebody in rock and roll said so.”

Two personal notes. The first is that I wrote this piece during the nine months I taught at Cal Arts and lived in L.A.—and also often flew up to Berkeley to see my friends there. Thus I got to see the band, with a nudge from my pal Greil, infinitely more than I could have in New York, with the Long Beach show my narrative hook. The second is that I was thinking about women’s issues in rock and roll in large part because I’d spend most of the high ‘60s in constant communication with New Yorker rock critic and radical-feminist-in-waiting Ellen Willis, who’d been my girlfriend since well before rock criticism was a thing. We’d split painfully in September, 1969, and were in very sporadic contact thereafter. But when I initiated the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll at the end of 1971, she mailed in a ballot. Joy of Cooking topped mine, whereas—predictably, really, she was such a fan—her No. 1 was Who’s Next. But I was pleased to see that right behind it was Joy of Cooking.

Joy of Cooking is Berkeley-based and has gigged around Northern California—most often at a little club called Mandrake—for the better part of three years. It is led by Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite, women in their thirties who are veterans of the Bay-area folk scene. Toni does most of the composing, plays keyboards, and sings harmony, counterpoint, and some lead. Terry is the lead singer and plays guitar. The other band members are men. Conga drummer Ron Wilson studied classical piano for twelve years and somehow ended up working with computers, a life he gave up at age thirty-five to join the group. Bassist Jeff Neighbor, who also plays violin and numerous other instruments, replaced Terry’s younger brother David shortly after the first album, Joy of Cooking, was released. Neighbor teaches music in the Berkeley elementary schools. Drummer Fritz Kasten has also played piano and alto sax. He has worked with Vince Guaraldi and with the San Francisco State Symphony Band. At twenty-six, he is the youngest member of the group.

A rock and roll fan is properly suspicious of such credentials. Creedence or no Creedence, Berkeley is an incestuous, self-righteous town blessed with an unparalleled concentration of mostly self-righteous talent. The far-from-adolescent protagonists of Joy of Cooking, with their roots in everything but rock and roll, could be predicted to turn out music that makes up in art, as they say, what it lacks in vitality, fun, and the common touch. Their album, however, is already moving up the trade charts, and when there’s a tour, it can be expected to break big. If it’s hard to imagine the band exciting young teen-agers, it’s not because the music is sterile but because Joy of Cooking is a very adult rock band. It’s adult, however, in the youthful way we try to be adult—without abandoning freshness and spontaneity—and so young teen-agers, who are not as predictable as older teen-agers like to think, can also dig it. After all, it has vitality, fun, and the common touch.

Toni Brown’s piano, which dominates, seems at first to fall into all the kitschiest traps. As a secret believer in the highbrow-lowbrow synthesis, I have always favored the straight-ahead barrelhouse boogie of rock and rollers like Little Richard and Chris Stainton or the more intellectual inventions of the great jazz pianists—the angular, reflective commentary of Thelonious Monk or the mad flights of Cecil Taylor—to middlebrow keyboard ticklers like Nina Simone, whose histrionic rolls insert unconvincing emotion into a song, or Les McCann, a leading proponent of self-conscious funk. But Toni’s resemblance to the middlebrows is only superficial. When playing for herself, she prefers abstractions like those of modernists Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, but she’s smart enough to know that stuff doesn’t work in a band, and so she has stripped the pulp from the overripe Simone/McCann approach and come down to a clean core of rhythm.

Polyrhythms are really what Joy of Cooking is about. Ron’s congas are the best proof, but when you listen thoughtfully, you realize that Terry rarely takes a solo or even plays a lead line and that Toni’s one-chord improvisations work because they weigh about the same as the bass lines and drum patterns. Toni says the one rock pianist who has affected her is Stevie Winwood. This makes sense, but it’s not the kind of thing that occurs to you, because Joy of Cooking, unlike Traffic, is a disciplined band. Understanding that friendly polyrhythms can get boring, the group intersperses closely structured songs with stretched-out dance numbers. Toni switches to organ, Ron takes a harp solo, Terry plays lead for a chorus or two. Also, they sing.

For Toni and Terry to play lead instruments is an almost unprecedented breakthrough for women, but their success with vocal posture, where the precedents simply get in the way, is even more exciting. Basically, there are three kinds of female singer: the virgin, the sexpot, and her close relative, the sufferer. Each of these stereotypes suggest a human being who does not act upon the world, and the exceptions—little girl Melanie, for instance—usually play equally demeaning roles. Probably because the image seems closest to some metaphorical reality, most of the great women singers have been sufferers, but usually their defeat is so complete that even if they start out with a certain jaunty wit—like Billie Holiday—they end up hopelessly ravaged, and their occasional assertions of strength—think of Janis or Aretha—have a desperate edge. I can think of only two sufferers who have managed to project a relatively sure and consistent dignity: Bessie Smith and Tracy Nelson. Judy Collins and Joan Baez are dignified, of course, but at the cost not just of feeling but of corporeality. Partly because her looks—straight dark hair, big eyes, pretty face—fit the mold, partly because her voice is clear and sweet, Toni is close to the Judy Collins image, but the effect is modulated because she sits behind her instrument and because she shares the stage with a very different woman, Terry.

Terry’s unique power as a performer came clear to me the third time I saw the group perform, between a terrible macho-rock band called Robert Savage and sexpot Linda Ronstadt in the enormous Long Beach Municipal Arena. My previous experiences had been at the Mandrake, in Berkeley, and at the Troubadour, in Los Angeles, where the intimate circumstances favored the group’s quiet style. At Long Beach, especially in the wake of all that amplification, they seemed likely to disappear. Response was lukewarm to “Hush,” which had enjoyed some local AM air-play, and the next song was no better. Then the band went into an adapted folk medley of “Brownsville” and “Mockingbird.” To my astonishment, the intro elicited some spontaneous clap-time from the audience. Toward the end of “Mockingbird” Terry took the mike off its stand and began her scatting counterpoint with Toni. Then Terry began to scat alone. She has been described as a laid-back Janis. Her voice has that gritty quality, but she never screams, and what she abjures in power she makes up in subtlety. There is no better improvisatory singer in rock, but she gives the sense that it hasn’t been easy. Terry is a beautiful woman whose initial impact is mostly toughness; both her frizzed-out hair and something embattled in her face obscure its delicate bone structure until you get to know her. The sexuality she projected as she bobbed about the stage in Long Beach showed a similar reserve. It was self-contained, true to its own rhythms; it was sexual, not sexy, completely unlike the gyrations expected of chick singers who are getting it on. Yet the audience began to clap again, and the turned-on greaser next to me, who had been demanding an encore from Robert Savage half an hour before, turned and commented: “They’ve really got it together.” Could any band of women ask for a more miraculous compliment? Not yet.

Edgily, Toni and Terry insist that Joy of Cooking is not a band of women, and it isn’t. It’s an integral unit. But it’s led by women, and it seems to speak for them. Not long ago, Joy of Cooking preceded Barry Melton, the former Fish, at a small Bay-area concert. Melton is a good guy in his way, but he is a classic example of the white singer who tries to camouflage his racial confusion with a mask of phony black misogyny, and when he started to sing about gittin him four or five wimmin, he was booed to a halt. Such incidents have been rare, but they’re bound to increase. Whenever hard-core rock fans talk about their subculture, they forget how many brothers and sisters are left out of the consensus. Many vaguely feminist women have no special connection to rock not out of ideology but simply because it has never really spoken to them. Joy of Cooking can end that. Not that Toni’s lyrics are any more political, in the narrow sense of that term, than her stage demeanor. She is simply a literate female who has not been a girl for quite a while and who writes from the experience of trying to be her own person. Allow me to quote a long stanza as a kind of finale: “I used to think a woman was just made to love a man/That a man was someone for a woman to hold to while she can/And then one day my man walked out on me. Well, you know I got the blues./I’d been living off him for so long I had nothing of my own to lose./And now I’m gonna move,/Stretch out and find my wings and who I am/And if I ever pass this way again I’ll be ready for a good man."

If the women’s movement has taught us anything, it is that such realizations are political if anything is. It's enough to make you believe in art. You, and maybe the greaser next to you, too.

The Book of Books, Rockcrit and Musicology Division

Eric Weisbard, “Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music” (2021, 530 pp.)


Yours truly leads the paragraph in the acknowledgments here where Eric Weisbard deals as he must with the many colleagues he counts as friends: “Notably, Robert Christgau shaped my basic taste, helped bring me into the Village Voice, has avidly supported the Pop Conference since he co-keynoted the first one, and oh yeah, co-officiated at my wedding.” And in the introduction he calls my Book Reports, published like Songbooks by Duke, “a reminder that many entries here started with him [i.e. me] dipping into a writer who gave the big question, how pop music made us rethink culture, a new take or tone.” Which I hope suffices in the full disclosure department. Absolutely Eric is one of my best friends, albeit a long-distance one since he and his wife, Ann Powers, left NYC in 2001 to reside in Seattle, Los Angeles, Tuscaloosa, and Nashville as Ann turned NPR stalwart and Eric earned Ph.D and tenure. I’m friendly with several authors I’ve reviewed here: the Sublettes, Michael Matos, Dave Hickey, Carola Dibbell. There’ll be more I’m sure. But Eric will remain a special case, because the takeaway here is that Songbooks, which accommodates a wealth of compact essays that critique an uncountable array of music books, is itself one of the best books about music I’ve ever read.

Could you perchance use an overview of everything that’s been thought in the 50-plus years since rock critics turned popular music journalism into an intellectually and for a while economically viable enterprise? Songbooks is it, only it goes back a lot further—two and a half centuries, to William Billings’s 1770 The New-England Psalm-Singer. In 160 year-by-year chapters spanning only 445 pages, less than three per entry, Weisbard not only summarizes and analyzes the book with its author-title-date trailing a header like “Paging Through Books to Make History” (Dena Epstein’s Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, 1977) or “Drool Data and Stained Panties From a Critical Noise Boy” (Nick Tosches’s Country: The Biggest Music in America, also 1977), but summarizes, mentions, or just puts behind him a bunch of related books, generally five or more, for a phrase, a clause, a sentence, a paragraph, occasionally an exegesis. A bibliography comprising some 1700 “works cited” fills 67 small-type pages.

Luckily yet quite possibly also by design, the sequential organization frees Weisbard from the impossible job of assembling a coherent argument from his surprisingly coherent individual fragments. What’s there instead is the broad outline of a strain of cultural analysis that did in fact crystallize with the rock criticism of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s rather than the jazz criticism that preceded it, its master in my mind the Martin Williams whose The Jazz Tradition gets a clause in the entry afforded Gary Giddins’s Vision of Jazz and whose Where’s the Melody? isn’t mentioned at all. Yet two constants have a story to tell: the shifting dialectic of vernacular and sentimental and the flowering and wilting of music journalism as a profession.

Intellectually, the first tension is key—“vernacular” is by now both keyword and shibboleth. Curious, I searched my site and found that although I’d used the word dozens of times, none preceded 1980 (which renders Carola Dibbell’s 1979 Harvey Pekar piece its earliest hit). But recalling how Billboard had wanted to change the highbrow “demotic” to the more vernacular “vernacular” in my Chuck Berry obit, then relented when I said I’d rather not, another search indicated that I was using “demotic” earlier than “vernacular.” Unlike “vernacular,” which per Webster’s means “using a language or dialect native to a region or country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language,” the second and crucial definition of “demotic” reads simply: “POPULAR, COMMON (~idiom).” Both “common” and “popular” pack serious weight in this context, “common” because it’s more leftish than “native to a region or country,” “popular” because it suggests why rock criticism, with its insistence that a bestselling art form packed aesthetic significance its sizable audience wanted to read about, became for a while the kind of viable career path that “literary, cultured” jazz criticism could not.

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This path narrowed drastically not because the rock demographic dried up commercially but because journalism as a whole was squeezed so brutally by internet economics. But that’s not to say that what’s labeled “rockism” wasn’t losing mojo as hip-hop stormed the singles charts and girlpop rose again. This shift was typified but not defined by the assertively femme-friendly term “poptimism” mapping a path blazed by Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson, Xtina and Britney, as well as the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync: an anti-rockist mindset that might be called “pro-soft,” favoring not just sweeter voices and catchier tunes but less aggressively foursquare beats. In Songbooks, its pro-woman academic counterpart includes Stacy Wolf on “butch Ethel Merman, femme Julie Andrews, gay-identified Barbra Streisand, and lesbian fan accounts of Sound of Music,” Tia DeNora’s “late 1990s Music in Everyday Life ethnographies,” Marc Anthony Neal’s “black male feminism,” and Diane Pecknold’s sales-conscious feminist take on country music.

Given academia’s tendency to annex rhetorical territory opened up by civilians, it’s inevitable that the books Weisbard chooses, whose pub dates end in 2010 in deference to his sanity (though later books do poke their heads in), get more academic as the years progress. Yet the very first such is already the 47th of the 160, GI-turned-Ph.D Américo Paredes’s 1958 “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. Before that, a bunch of unaccredited scholars including several librarians map crucial territory: slave songs, mountain songs, cowboy songs, Omaha Indian songs, Child ballads. Even such seminal popular culture critics as Gilbert Seldes and Constance Rourke—represented by 1923’s The 7 Lively Arts (which in a 1957 note Seldes admits was “‘square’” on the Paul Whiteman “jazz” then “so desperately feared, so violently attacked as the enemy of music”) and 1931’s American Humor: A Study of the National Character (where Rourke conflated blackface minstrelsy with Negritude and was OK by Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray nonetheless)—made their livings primarily at writing. But no more. Not counting a few artists—Madonna, Dylan, Jay-Z, novelists Jonathan Lethem and Jennifer Egan—the preponderance of the 43 post-1991 selections come from publish-or-perish academics, and even the few authors who’d identify as journalists often make the rent with teaching jobs.

Yes Weisbard passed on books I truly miss here—just for starters, Peter van der Merwe’s altogether unmentioned exploration of the ancient links between British and African song Origins of the Popular Style, Henry Pleasants’s pre-rockish The Great American Popular Singers, Dave Marsh’s rock and roll The Heart of Rock and Soul, and Rob Sheffield’s alt-rock Love Is a Mix Tape, plus Ned Sublette’s definitive-till-1952 Cuba and Its Music, which is praised unstintingly but all too briefly in an entry headed up by Alejo Carpentier’s verifiably Hispanic Music in Cuba (instead read Carpentier’s magnificent novel Reasons of State). But except for Jacques Attali’s passe Noise there’s nothing here I’m sure I’d cut. And though Weisbard’s efficient trick of ushering in crucial figures by highlighting the first books about them impels him to downplay or altogether ignore excellent biographies of Stephen Collins Foster by Ken Emerson, Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout, and Woody Guthrie by both Joe Klein and Ed Cray, you can’t blame him for failing to locate definitive yet manageable biographies I doubt exist—of Bert Williams, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra.

Yet out of this chronological concatenation emerges an inspiring, provocative vision of the many ways popular music matters—how caring writers have addressed its meanings, pleasures, mysteries, racism, sexism, populism, democratic vistas, conflicts of interest, angles of entry, leaps of faith, tricks of fate, joking around, stormy Mondays, mother fuyers, weary blues from waiting, reasons to be cheerful, simple twists of fate, sexy bits, and did I mention racism? And if it’s true enough that this vision is somewhat piecemeal, that at least leaves me open to close piecemeal as well by savoring three especially tasty pieces.

For me the juiciest traces the roots and branches of On the Road, which I wrote off musically in Going Into the City for its spontaneous bop caricature of “life, joy, kicks, darkness, music” in “the Denver colored section”—but which I also, right, slipped into my memoir, because the thing was so seminal, in my case sparking a 15,000-mile hitchhiking trek that transported me into my life of anti-bohemian bohemianism. “The counterculture’s founding novel,” Weisbard begins before fashioning a paragraph’s worth of sentences headed “Bop,” “Scene,” “Whiteness,” “Aesthetics,” “Art appreciation,” “Therapeutic ideals,” “Jokes,” “Goals,” “Purged homosexuality left on the typed scroll published fifty years later.” Then it’s onward to “Howl,” Burroughs, and ex-lover tell-alls that blossom into a phenomenally compact two-page history-celebration-critique, “a beat-bop American studies overview” of the pre-counterculture time’s bohemias that folds in more than 50 literary, musical, and indeed rock-critical names as well as 10 books I’ve read all of and more I haven’t—including Leerom Medovoi’s Rebels, which I bought on Eric’s say-so and escaped with my life at page 134.

One never knows, but I expect no such dire consequences when my copy of Susan Douglas’s 1994 Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media arrives in the mail unless it fails to include her “Why the Shirelles Matter,” which would break my heart a little; as a guy who thanked that vocal group in his inaugural Esquire column and last heard them Saturday, I can’t believe no one told me about it at the time. Douglas is the kind of academic I feel I can trust, because she publishes not just books that aren’t theory-heavy but raw journalism, the long-running In These Times media column “Back Talk” in particular. Keeping all balls in the air as usual, Weisbard notes that younger women have taken “the academic intersection of media studies farther.” But I’ll start with Douglas and see where she leads.

And then there’s “Musicology’s Greatest Tune Chronicler”: Charles Hamm (1925-2011), whose Yesterdays: Popular Song in America maps out an incontrovertibly multicultural lineage for American popular music that seems to leave the awesomely well-read Weisbard slightly awestruck. I felt that way myself when I first read Yesterdays. I met Hamm once on a visit to my Dartmouth alma mater, and although American music was his passion, it was he who introduced me to mbaqanga giants the Soul Brothers. A little of what Weisbard has to say about him will stand as a proper farewell to an endeavor that has no end: “The song, which could skim opera and ragtime with equal dispassion, was the perfect vehicle; commercial viability the only true measure; the sheet music ditties and recordings that resulted simple but ingenious. Hamm listened, researched, and illustrated.”

Xgau Sez: May, 2021

Some thoughts on dolts (or not), the Smart Monkee, rock bios, the greatest albums of the '90s (not ranked) and the best novels of the 21st century (ranked). Plus: In every dream life a headache.


Sir. How dare you refer to Jae Millz as a “dolt.” Fuck Tyga. Tyga is a Dolt. Millzy? He is not a dolt. Thank you. — Cody Fitzmaurice, Saratoga County, New York

A query that set me to wondering: Who the fuck is Jae Millz? A search on my site came up empty, which as a search for Tyga revealed was because I’d (mis)spelled Jae’s surname as Milz. The reference that irked Fitzmaurice was a 2010 B&N piece on Lil Wayne involving  LW’s No Ceilings mixtape, where in seven words total their names included I adjudged onetime Kylie Jenner beau Tyga and Harlemite Millz as unworthy of  such fellow guest contributors as Jay-Z, Gaga, and the Black Eyed Peas, as seems statistically probable without actually going back and checking. I’ve heard nothing especially doltish on the 25-30 minutes I’ve test-listened on JM’s 2015 and 2020 solo albums, but also nothing of Wayne or Gaga caliber. But if Fitzmaurice wants to assert that Millz is much superior to Tyga, I’m so impressed by his passion that I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Hi Robert, Happy Birthday! It’s coming up on the 42nd anniversary of my favorite Michael Nesmith album, Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma . . . I’m still pissed at you giving it a sub-par grade of “B-”—I am wondering if you still think it is barely above average? Best wishes otherwise! — Ronald R. Lavatelle, Nashua, New Hampshire

I just re-read your review of Michael Nesmith’s album Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma for the first time in around 40 years . . . it seems to me you reviewed him, his career, his business . . . but NOT the album or its music. Terrible review . . . probably hurt his sales . . . his reputation . . . and cost him a lot of money! — Roni Lavatelle, Nashua, New Hampshire

I find this so touching I couldn’t resist reprinting the two queries in the order they were received. I mean, it’s a very long time after the release of the ex- (and future) Monkee’s ninth album of the decade, six of which I reviewed even though by 1979 “new wave” was all the rage (two including a comp got B plusses), and this fan, apparently of  both Nesmith and Der Dean, is still not just brooding about my B minus but convinced that my lukewarm record review in a Greenwich Village weekly destroyed the sales of what he regards as Nesmith’s masterwork. As it happens, I wrote about the Monkees respectfully in my very first Esqure column in 1967, and by the end of that year had singled out Nesmith as the true musician of the foursome, which soon became conventional critical wisdom. And just for the record, The Monkees’ Greatest Hits has its own jewel-cased position right next to my 40 or something Thelonious Monk CDs. Also just for the record, I thought the Monkees’ “revival” of the aughts was one-upping “poptimist” contrarianism pure and silly.

I have a question which you may have answered multiple times, and if this is the case I apologise for not digging it up. Autobiographies and biographies by musicians are relatively common, and often enough they’re not particularly well written, either because the musicians aren’t suited to that kind of format in the case of autobiographies, or—and this is perhaps more common—the musicians have become deities, and their biographers simply feed into that narrative with a bunch of crazy stories that don’t necessarily say much about the lives and ideas of the musicians, or the world that they lived in. There are, of course brilliant ones out there too, written with great subtlety and thoughtfulness. Which are your favourite bios of musicians that you’ve come across over the years? — Liam Briginshaw, Melbourne, Australia

Always glad to be handed a chance to remind readers and I hope book buyers of my 2018 Duke collection Book Reports, which includes essays on books about Jerry Lee Lewis (I’d now add to Nick Tosches’s Hellfire Rick Bragg’s Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story), Lead Belly, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Ed Sanders, Richard Hell, Carrie Brownstein, Patti Smith, Rod Stewart, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen. In this newsletter itself I’ve positively reviewed Jim DeRogatis’s dogged R. Kelly book Soulless and Charles Shaar Murray’s magnificent John Lee Hooker bio Boogie Man. The Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Franco, and Bob Marley pieces in Is It Still Good to Ya? are also keyed to biographies. And in my 1998 collection Grown Up All Wrong the Elvis chapter is called “Elvis in Literature” because it’s based mostly on a sliver of his endless bibliography. Both volumes of Gary Giddins’s Bing Crosby are superb—with the second one especially sharp on U.S. culture during World War II. John F. Szwed’s Miles Davis and Sun Ra are damned good. And I should add that although I’d recommend obtaining  my collections from Duke or a local bookseller, naturally, most of those essays are findable on my site, which has a Books Reviews tab to help you track down a few more.

Submit a question

Love your collection, Book Reports, as it has recommended some terrific books. I remember reading somewhere your admiration for Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so I was curious as to what are your favourite novels so far in the 21st century? Thanks. — Brad Morosan, London, Ontario, Canada

This is something I happen to keep track of, so here’s the top 10 as currently conceived only with extra books for a couple of authors: George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo. Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay I (also Telegraph Avenue)Norman Rush, Mortals (reviewed in Book Reports). Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (also New York City 2140). Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude (also Dissident Gardens). Carola Dibbell, The Only Ones (she used to be lower but that was a polite lie). Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad (also The Nickel Boys and Sag Harbor). Elif Batuman, The Idiot. Akhil Sharma, An Obedient Father.

Does a best of the ‘90s list exist? (This question inspired by renewed Liz Phair excitement over new singles being quite good actually.) — Brian, Dublin, Ireland

Nope. As I’m always whining, lists like these, if properly prepared, are work. But it occurred to me that having just done my Rolling Stone top 50 a year ago, I at least had a good start—until a count suggested that more than half were from the ‘60s and ‘70s and only five, F-I-V-E (5), from the ‘90s—six if I count James Brown’s Star Time, almost all of which was decades old by the time the four-CD comp was released, but of course I can’t, just as I can’t count the fabulous and now scarce Go-Betweens best of 1978-1990. So we’ll begin with those five, alphabetized: DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing DJ Shadow, Eminem’s The Slim Shady AlbumGuitar Paradise of East AfricaThe Latin Playboys, Tom Ze’s Brazil Classics 4. Then I will quickly add Arto Lindsay’s Mundo Civilizado on the grounds that Carola requested it when feeling poorly at dinner one night recently and we were so entranced we instantly felt compelled to play it again right away and then yet again for our 19-year-old out-of-town grandniece the next day (she said she liked it and also left with a bunch of surplus CDs I was happy to declutter myself of). But of the other candidates I’ve tested out only Nirvana’s Nevermind roared into certain top 10 status (and if you’re keeping score, as I know a few of you are, that would seem to make both of those A plusses, end of story). Alphabetically once again, the remaining candidates are: L.L. Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out, Stern’s Africa’s Senegalese The Music in My Head comp, Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville (which did seem a little thin musically first time out), Amy Rigby’s Diary of a Mod Housewife, Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

If you made your own music, what kind would it be? Who would it sound like? — Sergio Thompson, Salem, Oregon

If my dream life is any indication, I’d be the leader of a postpunk rock quartet. On a number of occasions, I’ve had dreams in which I played such a role, although as I believe I’ve pointed out somewhere, I’ve also had dreams—long before my current semi-lameness, let me add—in which I could walk in 12-foot strides, and once it was the same dream. And then there’s what I dreamed last night, after I’d read this query: that I’d somehow been hired to visit a college and play my songs, accompanying myself on an acoustic guitar. This was a terrible dream without being a nightmare: having arrived at my destination, I failed to call my contact and instead began gabbing with a woman I knew while avoiding all thoughts of a) not knowing how to play guitar and b) never having written a song. Hours passed, my appearance time neared, and the whole deal was so annoying I woke up to be out of it at 6:30, which is early for me. But at 7:45 I got back into bed and soon found myself in a slightly revised version of the same dream. None of this was fun. I blame you.

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