Xgau Sez: February, 2023
Rock & roll's early days, the limits of the megastar pop life, Beyoncé and the road to an A plus, S – Y = ?, "Beth Ann and Macrobioticism," books that read like butter (and some that don't).
I’ve only recently began to take a liking to early rock & roll, and while I am aware of and enjoy the music of the key players—Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.—I still feel as though there is a vast territory left to explore. What are some of the best books to enlighten me on how rock n roll developed—both in general and in different states, for example New Orleans or Philly rock. Recommendations of other artists and their work who were key in bringing rock to life but for one reason or another aren’t as renowned as the ones mentioned above would also be of great help to better develop my knowledge and appreciation of early (circa ‘50s—early-’60s) rock & roll. — Juan, Paraguay
The late Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City was the seminal text. A lecture I gave on it is in Book Reports. The first volume of the late Ed Ward’s The History of Rock & Roll is almost as good in its own way because it benefits from hindsight. The back end of my first Consumer Guide book has two discographies, the album one way out of date but the singles one guaranteed dynamite. See also my Barnes & Noble piece “Ain’t That a Shame,” collected in Book Reports and on my site too.
You said about Taylor Swift’s Reputation that the issue is that she “completely identifies as a popstar.” How is that a problem when she actually is a pop star, and, if I might say, our current biggest one? Do you think that writing songs about fame makes her art less relevant? — Abdelhamid Kbabra, Paris
Absolutely I do. In a singer-songwriter like Swift, I as a listener am always most attracted to stories and turns of insight relevant to my own emotional life, which even as someone fortunate enough to have been happily married for half a century I nonetheless still reflect on quite a bit as I think about the joys and travails of friends, family, and humanity in general. Because I’m a popular music fan as well as critic, the megastar pop life also interests me and has inspired excellent music from the Beatles to Beyoncé. But although pure musicality is always crucial and sometimes decisive, the megastars who can reflect meaningfully or for that matter exuberantly or for that matter humorously on more generally relevant matters—friendship, pleasure, conflict, contradiction, loss, politics, social unrest, stuff I’m not clever enough to isolate off the top of my head here—are the ones who move me most and matter most to me. And musicality or no musicality, the travails of fame are usually a bore by me.
Among all the rightful praise thrown your way, Dean, I would like to add this vital point: you have been right. Critics, to be worth their salt, have to emerge from the pages of history as right, right? My personal experience has demonstrated this—freakin’ Field Day, for prime instance. Universally dismissed (Rolling Stone gives it the back of the hand) and you give it an A plus. A plus! Today it sounds—God—so damn good, it holds up and I expect it to do so for years into the future. My question is this: I know you have spoken about this in the past but what records do you recall as being the absolutely toughest to settle on and decide? And why? — Werner Trieschmann, Little Rock, Arkansas
It really doesn’t work that way for me except insofar as giving any album an A plus is such risky business that I’ve done so less and less over the years. I’ve been grading records for so long that the 80 or so A records I find each year get there by kicking off a part of my brain that starts saying to me “Oh yeah, that’s an A.” Sometime that album will dip to B plus, other times it starts registering full A. But A plus is someplace else altogether. The reason I gave Beyoncé’s Renaissance one last summer is that it had begun its life for me getting Bob-Carola-thanks-Nina through a traffic jam and remained our go-to car music for a week of driving around the Connecticut shore. As someone who stopped owning cars in 2006, that’s not liable to happen to me again anytime soon. Though maybe I should have given that Selo i Ludi record one now that I think on it—to me it seems that resonant historically. Only, well, there were those two Rammstein covers.
Kim Gordon＞Thurston Moore in Sonic Youth. Do you agree, Bob? — Zeng, Jiangxi, China
Kim is smarter if all too aware of it and her only solo rock record was way better than any of Thurston’s, plus she didn’t break up the marriage. But Thurston was the rock and roll heart of that great band, which badly needed one though Steve Shelley played a similar role. So by me they’re equals—bandwise, anyway.
Is your 1966 piece about a woman who died as a result of a macrobiotic diet available somewhere online? If not, do you think you’d be willing to share it with us? — Michael, Scranton, Pennsylvania
It’s on my site. Made my career well before Tom Wolfe included it in his The New Journalism collection. Never wrote anything else quite like it—it’s so sparely Hemingwayesque, with an undeniable built-in ending.
The recent question about Bolaño elicits in me a keen desire to know more about the novels you’ve consumed. Ideally we’d get your top 10 for every calendar year—we know you are not averse to annual lists as such—but I’ll happily settle for 20 good novels people may be less familiar with. — Martin, Cleveland, Ohio
How about 11? Most longish, two quite brief, several I’ve written about including three in Going Into the City, one you’ve seen the movie of (which ain’t bad), three by writers I’ve reviewed in the Voice, three by writers of color, a few particularly the all too unsung Drabble read like butter and a few don’t come close.
Alejo Carpentier, Reasons of State
Roddy Doyle, The Commitments
Margaret Drabble, The Millstone
Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas
Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo
Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312
Henry Roth, Call It Sleep
Ousmane Sembene, God’s Bits of Wood
Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children