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Monsters of Rock Criticism: Greil Marcus Interviews Robert Christgau

The two writers and longtime friends discuss Christgau’s new book and why they’re as passionate about music as they were fifty years ago

Robert Christgau, photographed at home, Feb 9, 2014.Sacha Lecca

Robert Christgau

Sacha Lecca

Bob Christgau and I have known each other since 1969, when he’d just moved from Esquire to his first tour at The Village Voice and I was writing for the San Francisco Express Times and Rolling Stone. Since then we have never stopped talking — we’ve disagreed about half of everything, argued, fought, and in some way or another always made common cause. This interview marks the publication of Bob’s new book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017, but it’s also part of that ongoing conversation.

This is your third collection of music pieces. The first one, Any Old Way You Choose It, in 1973, was a collection of your first published work on rock & roll starting from Esquire and proceeding on from there, so it went back to 1967, is that right?
That’s right.

And then later on you collected many longer pieces into Grown Up All Wrong, published by Harvard in what year?
1998.

And that had a vast perspective of the landscape of popular music over the previous 25 years.
Yes, and it was all artist essays. There were no generalizing pieces. I had written a lot of what I regarded as comprehensive pieces on major artists as well as pieces on less-major artists who I thought deserved some critical permanence, which you kind of get when you publish a book with Harvard. Except for Bob Dylan, who I’d done a lot in the first book, it dealt with just about every major rock star, as I conceived it. Some of those were based on a column I did for The Village Voice called “Rock & Roll &.” I kept writing that column until I got canned in 2006, and then “Rock & Roll &” continued at The Barnes & Noble Review, where I got a chance to write about people I’d never had the guts to write about, notably Thelonious Monk. Rock & roll fan that I am, Thelonious Monk is probably my favorite musical artist. That piece took me about a month, because I’m not musically literate in writing about jazz. And then I taught at NYU, I was past 75, and I said to myself, “If I’m going to do another collection I better do it now.” I actually ended up doing two — there’ll be another one focused on books coming out in the spring.

Called Book Reports.
Right. The title of Grown Up All Wrong comes from a Rolling Stones songAny Old Way You Choose It is from a Chuck Berry song. This one is called Is It Still Good to Ya?, which is a less well-known song by less well-known artists, Ashford and Simpson. That song had become the linchpin of an essay that I wanted to begin the collection with. It turned out to be about life and death and guilty pleasures — my father died while I was writing that essay. I thought Is It Still Good to Ya? was a good title for somebody who was in his late seventies and still writing about music, and I loved the fact that it was from this non-pop hit by a married couple. Marriage is another thing that matters a great deal to me.

I would say there’s two ways in which this book is very different from the two previous collections. As with Any Old Way You Choose It, here are a lot of general pieces about music — popular music of all sorts in the first section, from a lecture on American exceptionalism in music to a piece called “A Month on the Town,” where I set myself the task of going out to see music every night. But then there are artist essays. I’d said in the introduction to Grown Up All Wrong that there were a bunch of artists I thought I ought to be writing about at some point, and most of them are in this book. I haven’t gotten to Louis Jordan yet. And also I’ve written a lot about African music, I think more than any other pop critic in America, and I wanted to put all that together in a way that seemed coherent. And I did more artist essays of the sort that are in Grown Up All Wrong, most of them about artists who basically had no profile in 1998. Artists of this century.

Another thing that’s different about this book is that the thrust locates all different kinds of performers, records, songs and incidents within a pop firmament. Things are stars in this universe rather than on their own, in the frame of reference that they create.
That had not occurred to me, but it makes perfect sense. I would think that partly that’s because the first section has a generalizing historical sweep that then creates a context.

It came into focus for me at the very end when you write an obituary for Prince, “The Most Gifted Artist of the Rock Era.” At the end of that piece you talk about “Little Red Corvette” and about the structural place that song has in pop music as we’ve experienced it over the past several decades. You’re not focusing on the song itself — its harmonics, its metaphors, the way Lisa Coleman comes in at the end. That song is part of a much larger argument. And that, it seems to me, is the shape of the book.
What you’re saying is very interesting, but I also think it reflects our approaches. I mean, you and I are now the grand old men of this enterprise, right? We’re guys in their seventies who are still writing about pop music as if we care about it, because we do. But your method for a very long time has been to hone in on individual pieces which you can expand on. I’m sure you could write 1,500 words about “Little Red Corvette,” no trouble. . . .

Oh, I could do that asleep.
Whereas there’s always been a sociological context in which I’ve written. And it seems to me that that becomes more explicit because of the way the book is constructed. And also, one other reason: This book is, for better or worse, autumnal. It ends with, among other things, a bunch of pieces about people who are dead or dying.

Well, I didn’t get that feeling at all, reading it. One of the things that struck me is the sense of commitment to the subject, the feeling of its continuing vitality and inventiveness, its emotional and even spiritual sustaining force, and of battles that will never be settled. I’m talking about high and popular culture, among other things. Whatever you think autumnal means, I found, more energy, more vigor, more sense of high stakes in this book than in the previous ones. It’s a noisier book. And that may be for the same kind of reason — that there’s a limited time to take a stand, to define a question, to leave a battlefield for others to occupy. But there’s no sense of quietude.
No. I assume that I’ll get to quietude eventually, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Let’s get to “A Month on the Town.” It’s one of the pieces in the early section called “History in the Making.” You set yourself the task in 2006 of going out every night to see music. It reminded me of the character J. in Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days. J. is a hack New York journalist — once interned at The Village Voice — and he’ll go to the opening of an envelope as long as there are free drinks and food. So he sets himself the task of going out to an event every night as long as he can. And he’s going to break the record — no one’s totally sure what the record is except it’s a really long time and the person who set it actually disappeared in the course of his marathon. So J. sets out, and it’s really quite a harrowing and ludicrous quest. But he’s not doing anything because he wants to do it, because he’s interested in this product, or this movie, or this showcase performance.
Except maybe for one or two nights, that wasn’t how it ever was for me.

I wanted to ask about stamina. Did you write about these things every day and then put something together at the end of the month? Did you sit down with scraps of notes and compose it? Because there is no sense that this left you exhausted. You know how certain people can finish a mile or even a marathon and say, “OK, where’s the next one?” That’s how it felt.
That’s great. I don’t go out as much as I used to, and in 2006 I wasn’t going out as much as I had 20 years before. But I see no reason not to acknowledge that one reason I did that piece is that the Voice had been taken over by a hostile force from Phoenix. The enemy was somewhere lurking and looking to fire me, which they did about two months after that piece was finished. And for sure one thing I wanted to do with that piece was say, “Fuck you. You think I’m some old fart? Here’s what I can do.” But also, I really thought it would be interesting, and it was fantastically interesting. Every once in a while I got tired, or I missed Carola, my wife, who didn’t come to all these shows with me, though she came to quite a few and provided me with some good lines.

As far as how it was done, I keep a gig log. The idea is every time I go to a show, that night or the next morning I write it down in the gig log. Sometimes they’re very scant, sometimes they’re very long. And I wrote the piece from the gig log. Then I figured out a way to put it all together. It begins with a whole bunch of bulleted observations from all over the place.

Music critic Robert Christgau and drummer Chris Cutler (Henry Cow/Art Bears/Pere Ubu) at Giorgio Gomelsky's Zu Festival at the Entermedia Theater in New York City on October 17, 1978. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Christgau at Giorgio Gomelsky’s Zu Festival in New York, October 17, 1978. Photo credit: Ebet Roberts/Getty Images

There are sidebars: headliners ranked good to bad, openers good to bad, best crowds, best musicianship, best costumery . . .
Ornette Coleman’s silk suit. What a suit.

But I think a lot of people might be surprised to find that the big hero, the guy who wipes the floor, is Robert Plant.
Robert Plant, who I don’t especially like. I’ve respected him for a long time, but I certainly did not expect him to be the best thing I saw all month. It was a benefit for Arthur Lee of Love, where Ryan Adams wouldn’t even use the house band because he’s such a stuck-up fool. Apparently Plant rehearsed with the fucking house band for two days. This man has played to more people than anybody else on that show, and he knows how to please a crowd, and he just went out and did it. One reason I respect him is that his affection for music in general has become quite clear since Led Zeppelin broke up. I’m not crazy about his Alison Krauss record — you may be. . . .

No, I think it’s terrible.
But in this case, his love, the general love, that was there.

Well, he’s a fan.
Right. And like any fan he wants to tell people about the music he loves because he thinks it will make their life better.

That was near the end of the month?
It was in the last quarter. I went with my daughter, who’s a Led Zeppelin fan, much more than me or my wife. When we went home, it was raining cats and dogs, and we didn’t care. I mean, it was a great, great performance. And I’m a record guy — my great claim to fame is having reviewed 14,000 records. But great performances — as I say in that piece, after a good show you walk home prepared to live forever. This was one of those shows. And then the fourth-best show that month was an African band I knew nothing of. I needed to fill in the night and I knew this show was over on Avenue C so I could walk there, and Carola likes African music, so we went. And they were really great. Just playing to 50 Lower East Siders, some of whom were dancing, including my wife. You don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, I remember seeing Joe Ely at the Bitter End in the late Seventies or early Eighties. We were at the late show and there were maybe 12 people there, and he was fucking unbelievable. We’ve never forgotten that show. It’s wonderful when it happens. And it happened a fair amount of the time in that piece.

Well, sticking on this theme of plentitude . . .
Plentitude. That’s what I love about popular music. That’s the reason I review all those albums. I review albums — really positive reviews — I know I’ll never hear again, ‘cause I’m just not going to have the time. But continuing to document that plentitude is what I’m in it for. You know, democracy. And democracy is seriously threatened at this moment. We’re both worried about it but we can’t . . . fuck, we don’t know what’s going to happen.

No. There’s a moment where you’re writing about Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops. Teachout is a well-known neocon. I remember a piece by him in The New Criterion where he attacked, in a very casual, dismissive way, various so-called liberal shibboleths, including public education. Just one of those things that we should stop thinking about. That’s who Terry Teachout is. And you write, “He’s inordinately fond of Whit Stillman and John P. Marquand. But he also feels such lefties as Aaron Copland, John Sayles and Jerome Robbins, and his forthright embrace of popular culture plainly proceeds from his Missouri upbringing and his own pleasure.” And then you say, “As a left-populist skeptical of academic postmodernism and avant-garde obscurantism who stopped dissing the middlebrow mindset decades ago, I often sympathize. But I doubt that would prevent him from slotting me as one of those ‘middlebrow-hating radicals of the Sixties’ with a ‘propensity to deny the existence of meaningful distinctions between high and popular culture.’ ” But what you object to is the notion that there are fundamental qualitative distinctions — that there are certain kinds of pleasures, certain kinds of sublimities, certain kinds of revelations, certain kinds of access to human understanding that we find in high culture that we’ll never find in popular culture.
I have to tell you, these are issues I’ve been thinking about all my adult life.

I know.
That paragraph took me a day to write. One paragraph.

Well, you go on to say — I’m quoting this because this is central not just to the whole book but to your life as a critic — To me this way of seeing things is suspiciously undemocratic. One meaningful distinction between high and popular culture is there’s way more good popular culture because its standards of quality are more forgiving.” And it made me think of Gilbert Seldes and The 7 Lively Arts . . .
An early hero of mine . . .

. . . where he makes the opposite claim. He says that an audience for the New York Philharmonic will applaud with enthusiasm for an absolutely third-rate performance of a piece by Mozart or Beethoven or Bach or Brahms, whereas an audience for a vaudeville review will never stand for a third-rate piece. They will yell, they will throw things, they’ll walk out. He says the basic quality in popular culture is always higher because high-culture audiences have bought their own hype. They know it’s got to be good for you, it’s got to be elevated.
I think that Seldes had not met The Apprentice. One of the many things I hate about Donald Trump is that he embodies a kind of very popular popular culture that, as near as I’m able to perceive and stomach, is of no quality whatsoever. Now, my late adviser Ellen Willis actually wrote one of her fine late pieces in which she defended talk shows and Ricki Lake. It was a brilliant piece but I still don’t want to see Ricki Lake’s show.

Let’s shift from that to one of my favorite things in the book, which is a piece called “B.E.: A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock and Roll.” At one time you were going to write a short but comprehensive book on the history of popular music, going back to the Egyptians, if I remember correctly.
That’s correct. I know a lot about Egyptian music. Or I did.

Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus. Photo credit: Linda Mevorach

Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus. Photo credit: Linda Mevorach

“A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock and Roll” starts much later than that in 1227, with “Moon, June, Spoon Meets Death Metal,” where you’re talking about the troubadours. You move on from there to black slaves fiddling for white colonists in Jamestown, to Jim Crow, to Tin Pan Alley. A paragraph for each of these moments. They’re funny, they’re instructive, they all have, it seems, a year of research behind them, and they’re full of a messianic fervor. What was your mood writing this piece?
Well, I got my Guggenheim to do a history of popular music in ‘87, and it was already clear to me that writing it was going to be difficult. Although I didn’t give up for a while — there’s also a piece in this book about Dionysus. But the “Prehistory of Rock and Roll” — I was shooting the shit with James Truman, who was the editor of Details in the early Nineties. Details was basically a men’s fashion magazine, but he thought this would really be good for his audience. It was a chance to put it together and not lose all of what I knew — not that there was no new research, but it was a chance to be sure something came of this perhaps overambitious notion of mine. And, in fact, I think a lot has. That work is buried in a lot of what I write. I was listening to African music before I began that project, but without any question being forced to think about it made me go much deeper into African culture and African history, and that’s reflected in everything I now write about African music.

I want to talk about a series of pieces in the middle of the book that begins with your piece on Louis Armstrong and Teachout’s biography, then goes on to Thelonious Monk, Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra, Chuck Berry, the Coasters, Sam Cooke and Etta James. Epochal performers. In each case you’re really looking these people in the eye, and you’re looking at the people behind them. I’d like to know how you wrote the Coasters piece. That was the big surprise for me. Hadn’t read that piece before.
Most of those pieces did have news hooks. I’m a journalist, I have to pretend to be covering the news, even if it’s actually not my chief concern. In the case of the Coasters there was no news hook, but I’d always wanted to write about them, because I cared so much about them as a teenager. So I did it for nothing. I like to get paid when I write, I think it’s good for you. . . .

There’s also the money. Which we can all use.
But like a few pieces in this book, this was a lecture that I wrote for the then-called EMP Pop Conference, now called MoPOP, in Seattle, run by Eric Weisbard and Ann Powers. A lot of research went into that piece. I eventually reached Carl Gardner, the surviving Coaster. And he had written an autobiography, which he sent me.

Unpublished.
Unpublished. Which I still have in my files. That helped a lot.

That’s where the piece opens up. I thought I knew a fair amount about the Coasters — I think the third piece I ever published, in 1969, was about the Coasters — but reading this piece I realized I didn’t know anything about the Coasters. It was a great story, and I value the storytelling in this book: This person’s life is a great story, and it’s a conundrum; we don’t fully understand it, we don’t know where this came from, but let’s look at it.
I believe there is a biographical fallacy.

Me too — 90 percent of music critics, they have no other way of writing about anything. The fallacy is their philosophy.
Nevertheless when I write these critical profiles, most of them have some biography in them, and there’s a number of reasons for that. One is that I’m very interested in what it takes to produce art. I wrote a piece that’s not in the book about the class background of Fifties rock & rollers. I would notice that there would often be some shade of culture with a capital C in the backgrounds of people who were basically working-class. How many were teachers? And I tried, then, to connect the life to the work. Although often one of the things I do is to say, “No, you would think that the life would do this but in fact it did that.” I explore the biographical fallacy. It’s crazy to think that the art expresses the life. But it’s equally crazy to think the art has nothing to do with the life.

It comes down to Albert Murray saying that if Bessie Smith really is the expression of 400 years of African-American — he would have used the term Negro — pain and suffering, it’s very interesting that 400 years of African-American pain and suffering has produced only one Bessie Smith.
Exactly.

That’s where you have to fight the battle that it is simply sociology. Etta James can’t be typical of anything. That’s why so many people ignore her, because she can’t be made to play a neat sociological function.
Right, and people keep talking about her as a soul singer when in fact she came from Nebraska and grew up in Los Angeles.

And San Francisco.
And San Francisco, that’s right. And what seems to be really important about Etta James, besides her voice, which is probably the single most important thing, and it’s just a physical characteristic . . .

No . . .
Well, she developed it, yes, but nobody else could have developed that voice.

But there’s thought in every syllable. . . .
Yes. And, you know, people think Elvis Presley is dumb. Jerry Lee Lewis is dumb. They’re never dumb. Almost never — it happens, but it’s unusual. Etta James, you read the book that she did with David Ritz, this is an incredibly insightful, smart, articulate person. Didn’t go to college, didn’t go to high school, didn’t matter. Woman has enormous brains. As does, for instance, Sam Cooke. To me it’s very important that Sam Cooke, in addition to being a guy who would go down and play dice with the boys to prove to himself that he was genuine, he traveled with a library and he read all these books about black history while he was singing for rich white people at the Copa. It was all happening in the same person.

You said there was playful stuff that you had to leave out of the book and you regretted that. What are you talking about?
I used to do things at the Voice called Licks — brief reviews. I remember one about Lee Dorsey opening for the Clash. I wonder if I could have squeezed that in? But there’s a piece about Holy Modal Rounders — I was looking for the right one, and I didn’t find it until after the book was put together. I called my editor and persuaded him to let me squeeze another 500 words in. Holy Modal Rounders did not need to be in this book, except insofar as I actually love Peter Stampfel as an artist and was sorry not to be including him.

They’re a part of your sensibility. They’ve been a companion through many years.
Ever since I put Have Moicy! on and got up from my nap so I could turn it over, something I would never do. It’s a record Stampfel made with Michael Hurley and Jeffrey Frederick in ‘76. He actually hand-delivered it to the Voice. I barely knew who he was. He just handed it to me, I went home, played the first side — I was really tired, it was a Monday — played the first side, said, “Shit!” Turned it over and I kept playing it all night. And I’ve never, ever gotten tired of it, ever. One of my favorite records of all time. So I had to have it in there.

christgau book is it still good

Duke is publishing two collections, this one and Book Reports, which is your first collection of pieces on books. And it shows the development of a critical sensibility in a more complete way than Is It Still Good to Ya?
In a more autobiographical sort of way. There are quite a few pieces from the early Seventies in that book.

It’s your first time covering that territory, but you cover the whole territory. So here is Duke behind you with two books, both around 400-and-some pages. Tell me about working with Duke.
I did this book because I know Ken Wissoker from the Pop Conference. Ken, like me, is really interested in African music and published a rather good book about the Congo, Rumba Rules, that I wrote about — the piece is in this book. Duke is an academic house. I’m not making a lot of money off these books and I’m probably not gonna. But Ken, more than any other academic editor I’m aware of, appreciates non-academic writing on popular music. Really understands that a lot of the smartest stuff is done by journalists. And I think this is truest in music. Not as true as it used to be, because the venues aren’t there anymore, and the money isn’t either. But for all of my reservations about Pitchfork, and different kinds of reservations about Noisey, where I still publish a column, there’s intellectually ambitious work being done in both of those places that could not be done in academia. I don’t think that many people in the academic publishing world understand that — you have to care about pop music in a deep way, and Ken does. He is a record collector. You sit down and there’ll always be something he wants to talk about — he’s heard the record that you haven’t by Cécile McLorin Salvant, the jazz singer. You can have that talk with him.

The last piece in the book is an obituary for Leonard Cohen.
No, the last piece in the book is about the New York Dolls. They’re gonna live forever.

Yeah, the New York Dolls are gonna live forever, but there are also obituaries for Prince, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen in that last section. But I didn’t get the feeling finishing the book that I was finishing anything. That this would be a last book. I don’t think it should be. Have you given any thought to another music collection?
It’s not easy to publish collections. I have given thought to it.

I’m thinking of a much shorter book that is a lot more playful, doesn’t have an overarching purpose to it, except that it would be fun to read.
Well, as I say in the introduction to this book, I love collections. I became a journalist because I read collections. A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science was a key one, but there are many others, including Advertisements for Myself and stuff by Murray Kempton. Pauline Kael’s I Lost it at the Movies was really crucial. I love Pauline Kael as a critic and emulate her in my own way. But it’s an interesting thought, and as far as I’m concerned there is stuff out there that’s collectible. As far as the obits are concerned, they were done because I’m the resident elder at Noisey, and I volunteered. The Bowie was written very quickly — three hours, which was possible because of the structure. It’s a list. The others I worked more assiduously on. But I always knew I wanted to end this book with the piece about the New York Dolls. Because they’re my favorite band, and One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This is an album I play to this day. Usually when people make another record after 32 years, it’s not a great sign. And initially the Dylan piece that precedes it was in a different order, before an Ornette Coleman piece. But the first-bound galleys came back and it didn’t look right on the page. The Dylan piece is very short — it was part of an interview I’d done with Spiked. It took them a year to publish the interview, and in that time Dylan had gotten the Nobel, and they asked me to respond. I wrote it in about 10 minutes. So the final order was partly an accident of page design. But I thought, “No, after Ornette Coleman, let’s have Bob Dylan, alive and cynical as ever. And then go to David Johansen, alive and optimistic as ever.”

I think that’s part of my feeling about the finish of the book not really feeling like an ending.
Well, good. Johansen was talking about how he was going to conquer the world with this record. He had this Buddhist rhetoric, and I was very aware that I was ending it there, with this sense of ongoing energy. Because the New York Dolls are still alive, I’m still alive — I feel very alive — and I wanted to end there, but with a recognition of the eternal.

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