Xgau Sez: April, 2021

Taste vs. judgment, the (somewhat) enduring appeal of Leon Thomas, the diminishing appeal of Green Day, reading about if not listening to Joanna Newsom, and the hymnals of Judee Sill and Todd Snider

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In your Auriculum podcast you differentiated between taste which is subjective and judgment which involves, I gather, some objectivity. You also discuss your own preferences in music— e.g. fast over slow and happy over sad. How do you reconcile those preferences in the taste/judgment continuum? — David Wasser, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

Taste, obviously. But within those tremendously broad characterizations inhere countless gradations, none of which will determine in themselves my or anyone’s aesthetic responses to an individual piece of music or portion of same. This means that even at the crudest levels they should generate questions like, “If I’m such a big fan of happy music how come I hate the Kars 4 Kids ad even more than you do?” or (to choose an example from this past March 17) “Shane MacGowan takes ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ so slow, why am I sitting there after the dishes are done doing nothing but listening six minutes in?” I go into this in some detail in the Sonic Youth piece “Rather Exhilarating” in Is It Still Good to Ya?, which includes the following slightly edited passage: “One concept the non-old have trouble getting their minds around is the difference between taste and judgment. It’s fine not to like almost anything, except maybe Al Green. That’s taste, yours to do with as you please, critical deployment included. By comparison, judgment requires serious psychological calisthenics. But the fact that objectivity only comes naturally in math doesn’t mean it can’t be approximated in art. One technique is to replace response reports— ‘boring’ and all its self-involved pals, like ‘exhilarating’ or the less blatant ‘dull,’ with stimulus reports.” Which is to say, I’ll now go on, physical descriptions of the music, best accomplished for the lay reader with colloquial, non-musicological language.

Do you really think Leon Thomas’s Legend album is an A record? Listening back on it after many decades myself, Thomas’s admittedly unique voice seems more a novelty than anything else and the album itself more clunky than swinging. — Lee, Brooklyn

My records indicate that I Consumer-Guided just two albums by the man who sang Pharoah Sanders’s “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” neither of them Facets—The Legend of Leon Thomas. Both are from 1970: The Leon Thomas Album, an A, and Spirits Known and Unknown, a B plus. But by the time I did the ’70s Consumer Guide book I had hedged Thomas over into the Subjects for Further Research addendum, where I pointed out that his solo career had disappeared by 1975 and expressed reservations about his “muddle-headedness.” So I couldn’t tell exactly what you were talking about. But with my memory jogged I went to Spotify, so much faster than excavating my vinyl, and streamed Spirits Known and Unknown. Not clunky by me, a B plus at the very least—the yodeling rousing, the scatting spectacular. And while the rationalist I am remains well south of agnostic about the Guy, Gal, or Both with the Master Plan, he fervently believes Thomas’s “Disillusion Blues” should be brought out of retirement if there’s anybody out there with the chops and spiritual wisdom to shout and yodel it.

Hey Bob, I’m curious why you haven’t reviewed the last few Green Day albums. I know you didn’t like American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown all that much, but I’m just wondering why we haven’t gotten reviews of UnoDosTre or Revolution Radio. Have you gotten bored of their shtick? — Aidan King, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

Elementary, really. When I give two consecutive albums by an artist I once liked C’s, you can assume that I checked out the next one only briefly if at all, and chose not to find another way to hoist said artist on his or her own petard. In fact, said next one sounded like more of the self-important same, and I’m not sure I got all the way through the one after that, although I have a dim memory of trying briefly once. Nor has what little I’ve read about these albums given me any reason to believe I’ve missed anything. Punk is so tied up with the disillusions of growing up that punks do often age poorly.

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I’m curious as to whether you have any thoughts on Joanna Newsom’s last few albums; or did you merely file her under over-indulgence and logorrhea after Ys? — Cathal Atty, Donegal, Ireland

It seems to me that the answer to this and many similar questions is obvious: duh. (See Green Day directly above.) The reason I’m reprinting it here is to report that a year or two ago I received a letter that began: “Joanna Newsom is the greatest artist of the 21st century. Your misogyny is showing in your refusal to acknowledge her work.”  Such rhetoric is only to be expected when you’re a critic because most people don’t know what good criticism is, but though this correspondent was obviously only in her mid teens it was still disheartening—I am so not a misogynist. The second reason is to alert you to the superb and adulatory Erik Davis feature on Joanna Newsom in the 2007 Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology (those were the days), which I edited. Immensely long. As I explain in the book’s intro, I read it in one 45-minute gulp, because I do know what good criticism is, and even though Newsom really ain’t for me however much I appreciate her debut, this was clearly it. Different strokes, you know how it goes.

Any thoughts on the Judee Sill revival? Your reviews were spot-on, the grades maybe a little low (given how grades have morphed since 1972, a moot point). My knowledge of non-gospel Christian music begins and mercifully ends at Amy Grant, so I was grateful for her gorgeously rendered, way-out-there perspectives in a genre I’ll never care enough to revisit. — Keith Shelton, San Diego

Having had no idea there was a Judee Sill revival, if there is, my first thought is how glad I am not to feel obliged to worry overmuch about such wavelets in music’s vast sea. Clearly this is a time when every moderately gifted female singer-songwriter in creation awaits rediscovery, and Sill was a distinctive one. But where I was curious about how Leon Thomas might sound today, I found I could do without hearing Sill again. An overstater, a militant if fundamentally humane Christian—life is too short, especially when you’re turning 79.

I’ve spent several Sunday afternoons enjoying Todd Snider’s livestreaming shows—even bought a shirt to chip in for the cause. During a recent performance in which he played Agnostic Hymns in full, he claimed it was his best record. That was news to me, given how few of those songs have been worked into his recent live sets— he didn’t play anything from it when I saw him in 2019. I even recall reading an interview where he seemed pretty ambivalent about it. It’s always been my favorite of his (got lucky on eBay once and found a promo copy on vinyl for pennies on the dollar), so it was neat to hear Snider agree with me. I was wondering if you felt the same. Best to you and Carola. — Jon LaFollette, Indianapolis

Expecting consistency from Todd Snider is like expecting pie in the sky when you die—this is a guy who probably changes his mind while he’s tying his shoes. We listen to his albums quite a bit around here given the wealth of alternatives, and the only one over the past coupla years I thought maybe wasn’t a full A was East Nashville Skyline, which I expect was because I wasn’t paying attention at the right times. Can’t swear we’ve played Agnostic Hymns, however. Did definitely play both discs of The Storyteller in recent memory, and got Nina to listen to the entirety of “KK Rider Story,” which as a comedy fan she loved. But since it came out our surprise fave has been 2019’s apparently ramshackle Cash Cabin Sessions—have enjoyed it so much so that we entered it in our private Rolling Stone best-of-all-time sweepstakes. In that company, true, he did admittedly fall somewhat short.

Root of All Evil

Ned and Constance Sublette, "The American Slave Coast" (2016, 754 pp)

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Ned and Constance Sublette’s The American Slave Coast was published in 2016. It got a fair number of positive, intelligent reviews from people you never heard of in periodicals you never heard of either, enthusiastic writeups at Goodreads and Amazon, and no coverage whatsoever from the establishment press. It’s long, and painful to read despite the grace and verve of the Sublettes’ prose—the excruciating details of a slave’s daily life up front proved so nightmarish that I put it down for years. But in December, at the end of a year that convinced me more vividly than ever that black-white relations were at the root of national politics more bifurcated than I’d ever seen, I finally picked it up again, reading five or 10 pages at a time until I got near enough to page 668 to hike to the end.

I consider this is a great book, worth reading at least as much as Ned Sublette’s 2004 Cuba and Its Music. But while it means something for a music critic to declare that one the best social history of music he’s ever read, my blackface minstrelsy studies don’t give me the standing to make comparable claims for The American Slave Coast. I believe the reasons the USA became the first democracy since an Athens that had slavery too were less pecuniary and more idealistic than this book makes room for. Moreover, I have no idea what the Sublettes, who I’ve known as casual friends for years, may have left out, of what the counterarguments might be or who might make them. So it occurred to me that rather than reviewing this worthy tome I should just cherry-pick it—sequence brief excerpts and let the misprisions fall where they may. Despite scattered moments of hope, this is grim stuff. But most of the details are new to me and feel like they’re worth sharing. Want to read nicer things about George Washington? Try Howard Fast’s Citizen Tom Paine. The Civil War? I’m a fan of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. But the Sublettes are every bit as much worth reading.

Having reread the hundreds of passages I’d marked and picked out the most striking, I’ve settled for a rather crude organization. Rather then construct a pseudo-argument, I’ve divided my selections into five categories. The Sublettes’ fundamental thesis is that the Constitution banned the importation of slaves after 1808 so that slave owners—especially in Virginia, then the wealthiest state, and South Carolina, the Capital of Evil in the Sublettes’ view—could turn slavery into an appalling industry in which they’d produce and sell slaves domestically by breeding them like livestock. Insofar as Southerners were wealthy, they counted their riches not in precious metals but in the living bodies of the people they owned. Many of America’s most revered figures—including every president not named Adams or Van Buren through Polk—benefited directly from this system. So my first three sections are headed “Capital/Credit,” “Presidents and Other Luminaries” (watch out, pretentious Francophile Thomas Jefferson), and—such an obsession I had to cordon it off—“South Carolina.” Then follow two more sections, one labeled “Oppression and Resistance,” the other “Civil War.”

Some notes on form. Anything in quotation marks is a direct quote from the text, but not always a verbatim one—I’ve both inserted clarifying words or phrases and elided verbiage without indicating it with the customary ellipsis. Page numbers are provided. The few entries not in quotation marks are observations I’ve gathered from the text and condensed.

CAPITAL/CREDIT

17 “Slaveowners’ wealth was stored in the bodies of their always liquidatable slaves. In the absence of a domestic supply of coin, slaves collateralized the credit that created new money.”

69 “The idea that the South fought the Civil War so that it could be left in peace to have slavery merely within its settled bounds does not fit the facts on the ground, nor did anyone think so at the time. Quite the contrary: the war was fought over the expansion of slavery.”

111 “New England had slavery in the colonial years, but unlike Virginia, it never became a slave society, in which all social and economic relations revolve around slavery.”

183 “As the slave trade created business opportunities in Africa, African despots formed regular armies and battled against each other, the losers being sold into slavery.”

215 “Rhode Island in the eighteenth century became the largest outfitter of slaving voyages in North America, with Newport sometimes referred to as the ‘American Liverpool.’”

250 “The slave-society colonies of the South had their own compelling reason to secede from Britain: only independence could protect slavery from the growing power of British abolitionism.”

257 Some Southern soldiers in the War of Independence were paid in slaves.

357 “The payday for Virginia slaveholders was that slaves could not be brought to Louisiana from Africa or Havana but would have to be imported from the United States—a move that substantially revalued every Chesapeake slaveowner’s holdings upwards and substantially increased Virginia’s share of the nation’s capital stock.”

397 “New England did not want the War of 1812; the Southerners did. They got what they wanted: under cover of war with Britain, a substantial chunk of the Deep South was made safe for plantation slavery when Andrew Jackson vanquished the Creek Nation and took its land.”

414 “As the power looms of Lancashire sucked up all the cotton the South could grow, enslaved wombs were not only sources of local enrichment but were also suppliers in a global system of agricultural input, industrial output, and financial expansion.”

447 “In the eight years it took to build, the Erie Canal employed some nine thousand wage laborers, many of them Irish, but also including free black laborers. This was what a non-slave economy could do, and indeed by 1827 slavery ended in New York.”

464 “Slave mortgaging was essential to the functioning of the Southern credit system, but the practice has not been much discussed by historians and we do not have a good overview of the numbers.”

465 “The price of slaves fluctuated with the price of cotton, but in the long term, those fluctuations were superficial disturbances of steadily increasing prices.”

465 “The stimulus that got the economy pumping again after the Panic of 1837 was the annexation of Texas in 1845, which stimulated the slave trade.”

466 “Slave prices inflated continuously as compared with the price of the cotton the slaves produced.”

552 The slave population grew almost 30 percent between 1840 and 1850.

564 “The discovery of gold in California was a turning point on the way to Southern secession.”

598 “The Compromise of 1850 that admitted California as a free-soil state had not removed the South’s dream of slavery in a separate Southern California. The slave-breeding industry was reaching critical mass for unraveling—unless the expansion of slavery territory could postpone the collapse. From California, it would have to expand outward into Asia, and this was discussed on occasion.”

606 “The coming of railroads ushered in a new era of capitalism on a scale impossible when markets were linked only by water. But Dred Scott threw western expansion plans into chaos, railroad bonds dropped in price, and there was a Panic.”

627 Alabama secession commissioner Stephen F. Hale, December 27, 1860: “African slavery has become not only one of the fixed domestic institutions of the Southern States, but forms an important element of their political power, and constitutes the most valuable species of their property, worth, according to recent estimates, $4,000,000,000” (a figure that converts to 127 billion in today’s dollars).

PRESIDENTS AND OTHER LUMINARIES

41 “Thomas Jefferson funded the renovation of Monticello by mortgaging the labor force that did the work.”

49 “When Jefferson’s slaves got too old to work, he routinely cut their rations in half.”

63 “Twenty-two-year-old Ona Judge, who was Martha Washington’s personal servant, escaped from the President and First Lady of the United States in Philadelphia in 1796 after learning she was to be given away as a wedding gift. She married a free black man in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and managed to avoid falling prey to the attempts at recapture that George Washington attempted against her until he died in 1799.”

259 “Patrick Henry’s polemical evocations of liberty and slavery were framed by his concrete, daily experience of denying the most basic freedoms to an entire community of people over whom his word was law and who lived in misery at his grudging expense.”

262 Patrick Henry in a private letter: “I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil.”

277 “With Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson definitively established himself as a founding theorist of white supremacy in America, laying out in condensed form key points of racialized thought that pro-slavery writers would consistently reaffirm and that would echo in the cant of modern-day white supremacists.”

297 “The story of the Constitution’s making in 1787 has been told any number of ways, typically suffused with a cue-the-kettledrums aura of religiosity and an assumption of American triumphalism. Constitutional historians have tended to portray their subject as the most important political document in world history, in the greatest nation in history. In extreme cases this has involved elevating the framers to a sort of secular sainthood.”

282 “The bargain between freedom and slavery contained in the Constitution of the United States is morally and politically vicious”—John Quincy Adams, 1820

342 “Jefferson’s policy toward Toussaint Louverture was markedly different from that of the non-slaveowner John Adams. He refused even to write a personal letter for his new consul to Saint-Domingue to carry to Louverture, as was diplomatic custom.”

397 “Andrew Jackson is the only US president that we know of who personally drove a slave coffle [Webster’s: ‘a train of animals or slaves fastened together’]. But then, Jackson was also the first president to have been a merchant.”

459-60 “John Quincy Adams, whom Jackson defeated in the 1828 presidential election, was elected to Congress in 1830—the only ex-president to take such a step—and began a remarkable second career. His diary, which he began at the age of 12 in 1779 and maintained for 69 years until his death in office in 1849, is the most extensive by any American historical figure. On his first day in Congress he presented 15 petitions praying for the abolition of slavery in Pennsylvania and the slave trade in the District of Columbia.”

495 In 1836 the district attorney of the District of Columbia jailed a young Georgetown doctor whose possession of a trunk full of abolitionist literature the DA adjudged seditious. The doctor was acquitted, but two years later died of tuberculosis he contracted in prison. The name of the DA was Francis Scott Key.

530-31 James Knox Polk hailed from Tennessee but owned a plantation in Mississippi and bought slaves for it while he was president. His “slaves were a miserable, unhealthy lot who couldn’t even sustain ‘natural increase’ over the years: a collection of young people bought like mules and cut off from their familiar lives, with few natural or local connections among them, in an atmosphere of violent, daily repression.”

629 “Thomas Jefferson’s youngest grandson, George Wythe Randolph, was the Confederate Secretary of War for eight months in 1862.”

P.S. George Washington, James Madison, and James Polk all left wills instructing that their slaves be freed upon their deaths. None of their widows complied.

SOUTH CAROLINA

142 “The constitution of South Carolina was largely drafted by John Locke, who was secretary to the lords proprietors and an investor in the Royal Adventurers and the Royal African Company and who tutored one of the lords proprietors’ children.”

143 “The utopian vision of Carolina was the pursuit of individual profit by any means necessary.”

144 “North Carolina had no major seaport, and never developed a colonial aristocracy.”

147 “Carolina traders built a network that extended through the territories later known as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It was all South Carolina, at least in the minds of the Carolinians.”

148 “Even before South Carolina was able to establish a major staple crop, it quickly developed a two-way slave trade: first, exporting Native Americans, then plowing the profits into importing Africans.”

366 South Carolina slave imports: 8,592 in 1805, 15,551 in 1806, 23,174 in 1807. Recall if you will that 1808 was when it became unconstitutional to import slaves.

441 “The Denmark Vesey conspiracy of 1822 provoked a series of retaliatory measures that included the formation of a new repressive organization, the South Carolina Association. The Negro Seamen’s Act provided for imprisoning free black soldiers when their ships were docked in Charleston; in open defiance of federal law, it put South Carolina in the provocative position of detaining black British sailors. All emancipation petitions were to be denied; the entry of free people of color into the state was prohibited, as was all education for free or enslaved blacks.”

564 “‘Give us slavery or give us death!’”—Edward Bryan, South Carolina, 1850.

OPPRESSION AND RESISTANCE

60 “The slave trade routinely destroyed marital relationships, along with all other family ties, by selling one or the other partner away.”

165 “Self-interested rationally acting sugar plantation owners could make the most money by working laborers to death.”

184 “Slave rebellions reveal themselves not to be isolated struggles, as they have been frequently characterized, but rather as eruptions of a widespread, ongoing state of resistance. Between 1730 and 1760, there were 29 slave revolts reported in North America, about one a year.”

213 “Slave ships were death ships, the bottom of the employment ladder for sailors. On 1709 slave voyages out of Liverpool from 1780 forward there were 10,439 deaths, or 17.8 percent, about half of them killed by the captives.”

237 “John Wesley, in what was called the Arminian heresy by its enemies, democratized salvation by insisting that anyone could attain it—a free-will doctrine that would be fundamental to African-American Christianity as well.”

432 “The free black people of Baltimore—and indeed, free black people throughout the North—lived with the knowledge that they could be kidnapped and sold.”

439 “Bona fide abolitionists were relatively few among the white population in the early days of the movement, though their numbers grew in the 1850s. The hard core of abolitionists, of course, were the enslaved themselves, along with free people of color, who constituted most of the first 500 subscribers to The Liberator.”

480 “‘Small fancy girls’ means light-skinned female children, salable as sex slaves. It was a discreet phrase, but not a mysterious one: everyone understood it.”

566 “A clause in the California constitution that would have barred free blacks from entering the territory was voted down.”

575 At a November 1850 convention, 73-year-old secessionist South Carolinian Langdon Cleves “denounced abolitionists as communists, a term recently current from its use during the European-revolutionary year of 1848.”

576 Post-1848, “proslavery writers formulated the first generation of American anti-communist rhetoric. Southern ideology had coalesced into a vision of a worthy elite that governs while the unworthy multitude suffer.”

577 Unsung stanza of Stephen Collins Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” the state song since 1928: “The head must bow and the back will have to bend/Wherever the darkey may go/A few more days, and the trouble all will end/In the field where the sugar canes grow/A few more days for to tote the weary load/No matter, ‘twill never be light/A few more days till we totter on the road/Then my old Kentucky home, good night.”

CIVIL WAR

605 “Slaveowners incorrectly thought that the North would enslave them by making their black slaves into their masters. Increasingly, the laborers of the North correctly thought that the South wanted slavery everywhere.”

634-35 With the anti-federalist South seceded and James Buchanan having deliberately emptied the government’s coffers before retreating to Pennsylvania, Lincoln was both freed and compelled to issue U.S. treasury notes called greenbacks. “Greenbacks were not redeemable for gold or silver. They were what some economists call ‘fiat money’—money that is worth something because the government says it is.”

635 “Gold was coming in from California, where it was being found in creeks and rocks. Gold was coming in from England, which had become dependent on U.S. wheat after its own crops failed. The federal government took in the gold and paid out greenbacks, which carried no interest and bore no date of maturity. They were simply intended to pass from one hand to another, and never be redeemed, only replaced.”

636 “Greenbacks were popular; everyone was heartily sick of the patchwork system of privatized money issued by local banks.”

637 “Everyone had a stake in the survival of the currency, which meant, in the survival of the Union.”

637 “The Homestead Act was put into place—something that the South had been strenuously opposed to. The Land Grant Act apportioned land to public colleges across the country. The National Bankruptcy Act was implemented. The Yosemite wilderness was set aside as a national park.”

640 “The Emancipation Proclamation decommissioned the capitalist womb. Labor was no longer capital. African Americans were no longer born to be collateral. Their bodies were no longer a better monetary value than paper. The US economy was no longer on the negro standard. Not only were the slaves emancipated; so was American money.”

644 The Gettysburg Address’s “fourscore and seven years” dates the “new nation” “brought forth” to the Declaration of Independence, with its “all men are created equal,” not the Constitution.

645 “Pursuant to the Emancipation Proclamation, 166 black regiments were created. The number of African Americans who fought is officially around 180,000, but it seems likely there were more than that.”

646 “From the first encounters between black soldiers and Confederates in battle, the Confederates waged ‘black flag’ or ‘no quarter’ war. Atrocities were routine; taking no prisoners, they slaughtered wounded black soldiers, on occasion bayoneting them repeatedly or beating their brains out with clubs.”

646 At Fort Pillow in Tennessee on April 12-13, 1864, troops led by Nathan Bedford Forrest [the KKK founder whose bust in the Tennessee capitol has been in the news] murdered as many as 500 surrendered Black Union soldiers in cold blood.

668 “The history of the slave-breeding industry demonstrates how far the unrestrained pursuit of profit can go.”

644 “Everybody knows what happened to Lincoln.”

Xgau Sez: March, 2021

Groove with a side order of vocal emotion, soul with a (small) side order of jazz organ, Queen with less kitsch and more camp, and parody with honor. Plus: two movies, one a must a see.

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I notice how over the years you have reviewed music in languages that you (presumably) don’t understand. How do you approach this kind of music and what is your mindset when you enjoy it? — Eduardo Mujica, Colombia

I enjoy it as music merely, kind of the way I enjoy jazz—which generally entails harmonic details in musical languages I don’t understand either. This means that when lyrics are prominent, as they are in a lot of non-Anglophone pop, I tune out—even when the lyrics are in French, which I can speak and understand well enough to find a restaurant or the train station, but not to follow lyrics. All of which is to generalize broadly, with numerous exceptions. But for sure what I usually respond to in non-Anglophone music is groove with a side order of vocal emotion or affect. Because I recognize and treasure the African contribution to the Anglophone rock-etc. at the center of my pleasure zone, and also because I’ve long been aware of how decisive African culture is in American culture generally, I’ve always been eager to hear what African music I could, and so paid attention to the few compilations that began to surface in the early ‘80s, starting with the great John Storm Roberts Africa Dances collection of the mid-‘70s, which for whatever reason delighted me from the first time I heard it and prepared me for the trickle and then flood that followed; see the 1991 Rock & Roll & called “Afropop Without Guilt” for more details. But over the years many other grooves and even tune families have spoken to me. In Colombia itself it’s been cumbia mostly, which didn’t take long. For some reason, though the dominant horn parts are certainly part of it, I’ve never really gotten into Puerto Rican salsa even though I love Puerto Rico, which I’ve visited many times. But once in the south of the island I watched entranced for half an hour as a cumbia band entertained near the town square.

What are your favorite albums featuring jazz organists? I’m guessing that Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland and Booker T Jones must be some of your favorites but what albums by those artists or others do you turn to when you crave soul jazz or a keyboard master jamming out on electronic organ? — Chris Rogers, Missouri

To my surprise, since I never ever “crave” soul jazz or Hammond B-3, you guessed right. As I discovered by utilizing the Google Search function on my site, I’ve actually given positive reviews to albums by both Jimmy McGriff and Charles Earland. Stax mastermind and hidden genius of Willie Nelson’s Stardust that he is, Booker T. doesn’t have a horse in this race—soul jazz has never been what he’s about, which is fine by me because I’ve always found that calling too schlocky by a factor of three. Jimmy Smith in particular I’ve avoided for half a century. Cornball, cornball, cornball.

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I’m asking this because I’m a sucker for Queen, but what is your opinion on Queen—if you’ve ever listened in retrospect? You pretty much wrote off their albums, yet you later said their music has “the high gloss of committed kitsch” and Freddie Mercury was a “true queen.” It’s strange you’ve rarely mentioned them, especially because of the enduring popularity of songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You,” and more, plus their endless popular Live Aid set. — Oscar, Johannesburg, South Africa

I’ve definitely softened on Queen since I started to figure out that there was camp and joy in their overstated virtuosity as well as vitality and endurance in their tunes. I have both Classic Queen and Greatest Hits in my iTunes, but not the physicals, presumably because my daughter Nina squirreled them away in her CD folders back in the pre-Spotify days. Since Nina comes over most weekends I thought I’d burn a CD of the latter just to play it at lunch and maybe come up with a grade and some wise words about music I now both enjoy and respect without loving it the way you and Nina both do. As I recall—this was just this past weekend—she observed that she would have liked to hear more of their early stuff, but that was as far as we got. Are they worth some kind of A by me? Conceivably—we’ll see how it goes. But even given this query, which I only opened Sunday, it’s a tossup whether I’ll ever get that far. I should definitely check out the movie sometime. Nina loves it.

Hi Mr. Christgau, I came across this piece in a New Yorker anthology of humorous prose and thought you might get a kick out of it. An affectionate parody of the CG and your style, so it seems to me. — James Douma, Amstelveen, The Netherlands.

Veronica Geng, who died of brain cancer when she was just 56, was among other things a renowned parodist, so much so that to be parodied by her was an honor.  That piece, a Consumer Guide to imaginary albums spun off Nixon’s impeachment, was included in a 1984 collection of hers called Partners. She invited me to the book party and give me an autographed copy: “To Robert Christgau, From a little clerk, Veronica Geng.” Hmm. As I recall, she told me I was harder to get right than she’d expected, but looking back at the piece, I think she approximated my stylistic tics or shall we call them methods better than I had any reason to expect: long, grammatical sentences bursting with parentheticals and festooned with slang and wisecracks. It’s a sweet memory that reminds me how sorry I was when she left us so soon.

What did you make of former Village Voice staffer Joan Micklin Silver’s 1977 Between the Lines? I thought it was interesting but a bit out of touch for something produced THAT particular year (little by way of punk or disco—but maybe Boston was provincial like that then?), yet it had some nice riffs on rockcrit feminism. You’re mentioned in the credits fwiw, but I’ve never seen you hold forth in print anywhere and searching your site didn’t turn up anything either. Thoughts/comments? — J.M. Welch, Elmira, New York

First of all, although Micklin Silver did apparently write for the Voice before I started Rock & Roll & in 1969, I don’t recall her byline and doubt she was ever a “staffer” there. She gave me $500 (??) to be some sort of musical consultant on Between the Lines, which I thought was cool because I loved Hester Street. I have a distinct but undetailed recollection of calling her from a pay phone in the course of a vacation road trip and advising that she include the Bobbettes’ “Mr. Lee” in the film. Did she? Dunno. Insofar as it purports to depict the interior life of an alt-weekly I didn’t think it had an especially penetrating feel, although it was certainly plausible. But that was a long time ago, and after attending the opening I never saw it again.

No-frills question (or just topic): Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock from the Small Axe pentad. Have you seen it? If so, thoughts? — Mark Bradford, Brooklyn

You should follow me on Twitter, where I got so excited about Lovers Rock I dashed out an instant lateish-night rave that got plenty of lateish-night response, the most flattering from veteran critic Ira Robbins, who immediately sat down and watched it himself past midnight and then tweeted that he was as knocked out as I was. It’s not just that it’s the music sector of Small Axe, every installment of which I think is terrific. As Robbins noticed too, it’s how formally audacious it is—an unprecedented masterpiece, I’d say. It has no plot in the usual sense. Instead it’s structured as a documentary about a London reggae house party, from food and sound prep to individual partygoers dressing up to transportation to the shifting, organic interactions of the party itself. I find most cinematic party scenes, especially club-action ones (which this isn’t because of the house setting) garish, corny, overstated, stupid. Here characters and relationships emerge, crises arise and resolve themselves. There’s even an ending—several, in fact, each not exactly topping but inflecting what’s gone before. Like all these five films, it’s so humane; like most of them, it goes places you absolutely do not foresee. I thought what McQueen made of Twelve Years a Slave was excellent. But these films, set in a U.K. McQueen knows very well indeed, have a transcendent quality so remarkable I hope McQueen gives himself time to regroup before essaying anything too ambitious—hope he takes a few deep breaths and rests on his laurels for awhile.

Auriculum (Ep. 5): Bob & Carola & The Art and Science of List Making

Under discussion: the big fun work (and anxiety) of assembling top 50 albums ballots for the "Rolling Stone 500," why "What's Going On" didn't make the cut, and why DeBarge did

  
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Sparked by a tweet from Ireland, the And It Don’t Stop triumvirate—Der Dean, his executive editor Joe Levy, and for the first time ever his personal trainer Carola Dibbell—thought it might be a little fun for me and Carola to talk over the big fun, nice work if you can get it, and nagging anxieties that ensued when Rolling Stone asked not just Der Dean but pioneering female rock critic Dibbell to be among the many bizzers, musicians, and journos it harassed, ordered, flattered, and enticed into voting in its third 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Fans curious about my working methods or the marital comity with which they have long been intertwined will get some notion of how they play out here without glimpsing the more dogged “work listening” part. Levy, who oversaw the first Rolling Stone 500 back when he was employed by the mag himself, nails crucial specifics, keeps the ball rolling whenever we get tangled up in a scrum, and has done us the tremendous favor of constructing an imaginative Spotify playlist based on the conversation which constitutes the fifth episode of the occasional And It Don’t Stop podcast Auriculum. Thanks as always to Sandy Smallens for the audio and Wussy for the theme music.

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