Xgau Sez

John Prine's half century of great songs, playlisting for fun and work, 72 words in 24 hours, and what's at stake on November 3rd

Hope everything is good for you and your family with the corona virus going around. I have been an enthusiastic reader of your writing since high school! Just one question: Any thoughts on the death of the great John Prine? — Keiro Kitagami, Japan

I knew I was a Prine fan but was amazed at a) how big a fan and b) how many different artists clearly loved the shit out of him. When he died I felt personally bereft, which Lennon aside never happens to me in these cases. Kept playing his records for weeks, sometimes on Spotify because I never got CDs of the early stuff and sometimes extracting vinyl from my shelves, and not just because Carola kept making requests. His death was a shock to both of us because the report from his wife Fiona had been that he was out of intensive care and getting better, though at his Grammys tribute in January—Bonnie Raitt doing “Angel From Montgomery”—I worried that he wasn’t performing himself and looked kind of frail in the audience. (Note however that it’s been said he seldom performed as much as in the last few years.) And then everyone started writing and tweeting about it—I’m told Wussy did “Christmas in Prison,” one of my many favorites, at an at-home show. He wrote great songs for half a century, right up to the present—I underrated Fair and Square in 2005. In 1999 I did a piece about him that’s in Is It Still Good to Ya? But there’s a detail I left out. Carola had been invited to the dinner where it begins but decided our daughter Nina needed the company and stayed home. When I got there everybody urged me to call and have her come up, so she did. We’d both met him just once before, backstage at a folk festival on Long Island when I was working for Newsday, probably 1973. Prine took one look at her and remembered that meeting, after a quarter of a century. What a sweetheart. What a noticer. And what a master of vernacular English. As I wrote somewhere, halfway up Mount Rushmore at least.

Do you think music will change in the next year or two as a result of the global pandemic? Will new albums by “bands” cease to exist for a time while only DIY electronica artists like Four Tet, Burial, Flying Lotus, and godfather Brian Eno, all of whom have new albums out now incidentally, are released? — Jack Westin, St. Louis

I’m very concerned about how the pandemic will affect music. In addition to the loss of discretionary consumer income sure to ensue, it’s an economic disaster for most of the marginal types I devote so much time to—with streaming having turned records into a glorified merch niche monetarily, those who still earn their livings at it do so on the road, which will probably be off the table for all of 2020 as the epidemic fails to recede due to Trump’s murderous indifference and aversion to complex ideas. It will also be harder to sustain economically when it returns. Nor is dance music likely to fare any better. That said, so far a lot of good music is being released, and bands (no quotation marks by me) practicing together as opposed to playing out seems like a far simpler and safer thing to accomplish as quarantines ebb and flow. As for an efflorescence of DIY electronica, I suppose it’s inevitable structurally, though neither Burial nor Flying Lotus has released anything actually new and Eno stopped making interesting music decades ago.

Do you take into consideration and artist’s statement about their work in terms of “intentions” or “message” as you review their albums? Do you care at all about finding out what they are? Is your current attitude in that regard a result of your evolution as a music critic or has it been the same from the beginning? — Eddy, Canada

Absolutely I care about intentions, and fairly often refer to them or even cite them as unattributed facts as in my recent Fiona Apple review. Do I therefore believe artists achieve what they say they’ve achieved? Absolutely not. I write about what I find in the music, occasionally also citing the critical consensus. Popular music doesn’t exist in some formal vacuum. It’s also almost always a social fact, and it would be just as foolish to ignore that as to feel obliged to address it every time out.

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Your recent tweet about your wife’s birthday playlist inspired me to check out your Spotify page, where I see you made other playlists. Minstrel Tunes looks interesting and the Woody Guthrie looks like his best, but the two that intrigue me are First Rock N Roll and Frankie Manning’s Swingin’ Big Band Favorites. I streamed the First Rock N Roll playlist and it’s awesome - how did you select those 45 tracks?  I liked the Big Band one so much I found a CD under that same title with the same songs and may just buy it. It looks as good as RCA’s Fabulous Swing Collection which has been my go-to CD for big band swing for years. Why did you make a playlist of an available CD and not just buy it if you obviously love it? — Mitchell Muhr, Brooklyn

The public playlists on my Spotify page were assembled years ago for my NYU courses, one on popular music history and the other on the ‘50s. First Rock N Roll was based on What Was the First Rock’n’Roll Record by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, which we read in the ‘50s course. I notice that a lot of it is now grayed out . The swing album was put together by the legendary swing dancer Frankie Manning, who was still teaching and performing  professionally when he died at 94 in 2009 and who I later taught in the pop history course. An old friend of mine was his partner and manager for many years and would come in and lecture about swing, about which she knows far far far more than I do—she’s still very active in that world. I don’t make most of my Spotify playlists public because I don’t want fans or bizzers to know what I might review—most of them are whole albums. But I can see why people who like my writing might enjoy the NYU ones.

Thank you for flagging your “The Road Taken” in the last Xgau Sez. I was wondering if you could say a bit about your writing process for longer essay pieces. You’ve outlined a lot about how much work goes into your album-review capsules; are essays as painstaking, and full of revisions and drafts? — David, London UK

Essays tend to be even more painstaking because they’re under construction longer. “The Road Taken” in particular was very hard to write—because it was so personal it was hard to find a tone that didn’t seem self-indulgent, because Carola’s feelings had to be taken into account, and because it forced me to articulate bedrock concepts I’d long understood generally and felt emotionally without ever getting that granular about them. Took me a week of steady work. More typical were the Barnes & Noble essays, which generally took three or four days but sometimes longer. In the Louis Armstrong piece reprinted in Is It Still Good to Ya? appears the following 72-word graf:

To me, this way of seeing things is suspiciously undemocratic. One meaningful distinction between high and popular culture is that there’s way more good popular culture—because its standards of quality are more forgiving, because sobriety isn’t its default mode, because there’s so damn much of it. Since there’s so damn much of it, and a lot of that is terrible, it rewards connoisseurship. But its strengths are quantity and variety—democracy.

That paragraph, which summed up ideas I’d been thinking about for 40 or 45 years and had already addressed in print many times, took me a full, miserable 24 hours, much of it at my desk but some in a fetal position on my bed contemplating my own ineptitude. Then it came, all in a burst that lasted five or ten minutes though I did some minor cleanup later. Both Greil Marcus in his Rolling Stone Q&A about the book and David Cantwell in the lovely The New Yorker rave he gave me cited that little passage. It looks so simple, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t. That’s how writing can be.

You wrote a great essay in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign advocating for Hillary Clinton and explaining your issues with Bernie Sanders. Care to share your thoughts on the 2020 race? Where do you stand on Biden, and who were you gunning for during the Democratic primary? How worried are you about the outcome this time? — Jason Silverstein, Brooklyn

That piece is another one that took forever—a steady, frustrating week—because so much was at stake. I stand by every word. Hillary hasn’t been a deft loser, which even though I never thought she was deft has been a disappointment. But those who believe she would have handed over the economy to the billionaires and hung Puerto Rico out to dry to kick off every kind of racist outrage is deluded. Which is not even to mention, of course, Trump’s corrupt, ignorant, literally murderous response to a health crisis few politicos outside of some enlightened Obama bureaucrats even envisioned in 2016. So of course I think the 2020 election is even more crucial—democracy’s last stand because Europe can’t do it alone. Of course that democracy is infuriatingly partial. But as a longtime skeptic as regards the efficacy of revolution—see this 50-year-old piece—I believe anybody who doesn’t understand how much is at stake in the forthcoming election is criminally stupid. The demise of the post office will make room for a full-scale attack on public education. White supremacism will flourish. Immigration will be under constant attack—the disgusting Stephen Miller is one Trump bureaucrat who knows how to make the evil he covets happen. Every working stiff, techies included, will have to get by on less. Public health will be so underfunded and inept that new contagions are more likely than not. Abortion will end, feminism atrophy, gay rights shrivel. Our scant chance of avoiding climate catastrophe will sink to near zero. Et cetera. I’ll likely be dead before much of the worst fully materializes, but even if I didn’t have a daughter all of this would depress and enrage me as a convinced democratic humanist. So was I pro-Biden to start? Of course not. I was strong for Warren as soon as she showed a taste for electioneering that looked to me like a knack, although it proved less effective than I’d imagined, and yes, I blame sexism plus rage-fueled political indifference and incomprehension. Biden is nowhere near as strong or deft a candidate-as-candidate as I’d prefer, although I blame his tendency to misspeak more on his childhood speech impediment than on a “senility” I regard as 90 percent ageist fantasy. But his brand of centrism does come with certain advantages, because unlike the Clintons and plenty of other Dem muckamucks he’s not an ideological neoliberal. Instead he’s an habitual if not instinctive compromiser, which with the Democratic party having moved left with more to come in the wake of the plague means he’ll be much more open to something approaching socialized medicine as well as tax structures that soak the rich at least a little. So I hope to work for him this fall, health permitting—knocking on doors may prove impossible physically, meaning I may need to up my computer skills. Of course, that’s assuming there’ll be an election. That’s the scariest possibility, and don’t think I’m paranoid for mentioning it.

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