Xgau Sez: February 2022
Old men’s poems, some two dozen Dead shows (and not counting), Radiohead and Mingus and classical music, and grading the late-'60s Stones.
Hey Robert, just wanted to know how you and Carola have been faring. Hoping all is well. Hoping this isn’t too familiar a question. Love your work, you filled a void that Roger Ebert left. What was your favourite review of his? I know I just asked a question, but I also wanted to know what your favourite poem is. Mine is William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I’ve always found it charming in its simplicity, but that's just me. Love and peace. Would love to talk about Nick Cave with you someday, when you have the patience. — Jen Friendship, Brisbane, Australia
Carola is recovering—fairly well, it would appear—from February 11 eye surgery. Neither of us has (yet) contracted Covid. We continue to greatly enjoy each other’s company in our forced seclusion, though social occasions, which are very occasional, always feel enlarging. As for Roger Ebert, I respect him enormously from a distance on reputation alone but have not checked out much of his criticism—I read a lot, but mostly in the areas of fiction, politics/history, and of course music. As for my favorite poem, there are two: Yeats’s “Vacillation” and Williams’s “The Dance.” (Clarification: Carola reminds me that Williams wrote two poems called “The Dance.” This is the later one, which begins: “When the snow falls the flakes/spin upon the long axis/that concerns them most intimately/two and two to make a dance.”) These I write about at some length to close out the college chapter of my Going Into the City memoir, because college is when I really cared about poetry. Pages 122-124, to be precise—good stuff. An excerpt: “Both are very much old men’s poems, and both very much grabbed young me. I’ll say too swiftly that ‘Vacillation’ is about death and quite confidently that ‘The Dance’ is about love, then admit cheerfully that both are also about Time [n.b.: a bugbear of mine]; ‘The Dance,’ however, is more about death than ‘Vacillation’ is about love, never Yeats’s area of expertise.” I still read both Yeats and Williams on occasion, and of course I love “The Red Wheelbarrow”—who doesn’t? Also Robert Creeley. Other poets much less, which is not to say never.
How do you feel about Dead and Company or just the current rise in popularity of the Grateful Dead? You seem to have been an early fan based on your reviews of their first few records. I know they’ve built a dedicated fanbase over decades but it seems like their presence and influence has risen a lot in musical circles in the last few years imo. — Brian, Atlanta
If this is true I’m not aware of it. It’s my observation that many aging rock stars continue to play to aging audiences I assume are nostalgic for their youths and happy to shell out the big bucks they now have to revisit or recall those relatively carefree, innocent days. It’s also my observation that for most of these artists the conceptual excitement and creative spark have long since dimmed. I have no objection to this fan-artist transaction and not the slightest desire—or, given how absorbing I continue to find current music, need—to partake of such transactions myself. Offhand I can think of only three aging artists who I’d love to see right now. One is Neil Young, whose 2021 album was my number one. Another is Randy Newman, who has never made a bad album and whose 2017 Dark Matter was my favorite of that year. The third is Maria Muldaur, who as it happens was a childhood friend of my wife but who in addition has recorded plenty of top-notch music since she turned 60. But as one of the few critics to love the Dead in a prime that began to fade in the mid-‘70s and whose early records are still big favorites in my house, I can say that the last time I saw them was at the Garden circa 1977 and I thought they stunk. So with plenty of other live music to enjoy and some two dozen Dead shows behind me, I stopped going. As the extraordinary 2017 documentary Long Strange Trip establishes, they didn’t—their audience kept getting bigger and also, in many respects, stupider, though I found several good late live albums more or less at random. Then I don’t remember exactly when there was a solo Bob Weir album I tried and failed to get behind, and now this Dead and Friends thing, which may indicate the rise in popularity you posit but I’d adjudge not worth my time. Once again, everyone should have a good time if that’s their idea of one. There’s nothing remotely shameful about it. But I’m busy.
You seem not to have much love for Radiohead. Why’s that? — Will Son, Nigeria
This seems like the perfect chance to remind readers of this monthly feature that robertchristgau.com comes equipped with a search function that makes it easy to look up my Consumer Guide reviews of any artist, all of which include links to longer pieces on the same subject such as, in this instance, “No Hope Radio”—which, I can further point out, also appears in my National Book Critics Circle finalist Is It Still Good to Ya: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017. Moreover, the Google Search function of the site enables you to search for other mentions of that band’s distinctive name. I recommend you start with “No Hope Radio” and, if so inclined, proceed from there.
This isn’t a question. I’m not an inquisitive person. I think I know enough of your professional affairs to constitute you as one of my favorite writers. To me, you’re wonderful reviewer; a dependable resource of a critic who has a material and brute connection with the music, that when he writes, he writes of notions evident in the music itself. I never felt the need to mutilate my own perceptions to understand a bizarre connection, where you’re coming from or what you’re coming at. There’s a steel-stern separation between the subjective and the objective and humility and warmth that are somehow reinforced by the shortness of these capsules. And then there’s the bam of delightfully juxtaposing grades. As I said, this isn’t a question. But another recommendation as I proceed in my journey of discovering middle eastern music as a middle easterner whose ears are more adjusted to American. — Omar Qutteineh, Amman, Jordan
Question or no question, how am I not going to reprint that? Thank you, though I would say that rather than a steel-stern separation there has to be a merger of subjective and objective that doesn’t preclude separating the two rhetorically, if that makes any sense, which I’m not positive it does. You should be aware that my overseer Joe Levy burned CDs of the oud music you sent that I’ve played once or twice with some pleasure and interest albeit no true critical purchase. Thank you.
The love you have for Monk, Rollins, Davis, Armstrong, Coltrane and Ellington is always a pleasure to read. You have used far less space to write about Mingus, whose best work has absolutely stood the test of time for me. I was wondering if your estimation of his output has evolved since 1977, when you wrote that his “elitist aesthetic theories have always put me off his music,” and also which of his albums, if any, are A-level in your book. — J.R., UK
As it happens, I just read the very strange Mingus memoir Beneath the Underdog and for the umpteenth time pulled a Mingus album—don’t recall which one—out of my A shelves, where they take up several inches even though, as you note, I am not a Mingus fan. In the memoir I began to glimpse, in between the sex parts, why this was so. Simple, really, and as I like to say a taste not a judgment, many people I like and love like or love Mingus—Carola might well if I gave her the chance, though she didn’t bite this time. In between sex parts, Mingus makes a great deal of both his chops on the bass and the breadth of his musical interests, which definitely run to what I’ll just call classical music because I don’t want to go back and check specifics. My tastes in jazz are very much small-group theme-and-variation. There are plenty of exceptions, but that’s my aural wheelhouse. Mingus is plainly interested in more complex and “classically” inflected arrangements and compositions. Since I’m only 79 and in good health, I may yet develop a taste for such sounds. So far, no. As I always say about others and can therefore also say about myself: I like what I like.
Awesome you allow questions. Mine is: Can you please rate Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. First records bought: “She’s a Rainbow” as a 45 having saved up my 25c weekly allowance as an 8-year-old. Grabbed “Jumping Jack Flash” when that came out months later. Still have both. — Mike, Newark, New Jersey
I never do this, but A and A plus. That’s because your question made me feel as if I hadn’t played either in years—Now!, Exile, and Aftermath are my normal Stones picks. My gut reaction was that Let It Bleed was superior and I thought it would be fun to play them back to back at dinner, whereupon I learned that I didn’t own Let It Bleed on CD. I’ve ordered it, but meanwhile I played the BB CD and then Spotified Let It Bleed, which because it came out more or less simultaneous with Altamont I admired but didn’t play all that much at the time, though because I wrote a lot about the Stones in the ‘70s I’d certainly heard it a lot. Carola and I agreed that Beggars Banquet was an A, and then could hardly believe how good Let it Bleed sounded. Just the playing is fantastic; we were so snowed we even gave “Midnight Rambler” a pass. I learned that it was one of the first (and few, she was poor) rock albums Carola had bought when she returned from England in 1969 and that she played it constantly, but that was 50 years ago. Now she’s decided that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” should be one of her funeral songs (along with both Dusty Springfield’s and Aretha Franklin’s “A Brand New Me”)—no, as indicated above she’s not anything like dying, but at our age you start to think about that stuff. Nicky Hopkins is great on it, so much so that I can forgive them for downsizing Ian Stewart.