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Greil Marcus Interviews Robert Christgau – Rolling Stone

Music critic Robert Christgau and drummer Chris Cutler (Henry Cow/Art Bears/Pere Ubu) at Giorgio Gomelsky

Bob Christgau and I’ve recognized one another since 1969, when he’d simply moved from Esquire to his first tour at The Village Voice and I used to be writing for the San Francisco Categorical Occasions and Rolling Stone. Since then we’ve got by no means stopped speaking — we’ve disagreed about half of every part, argued, fought, and indirectly or one other all the time made widespread trigger. This interview marks the publication of Bob’s new e-book Is It Nonetheless Good To Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017, nevertheless it’s additionally a part of that ongoing dialog.

That is your third assortment of music items. The primary one, Any Previous Method You Select It in 1973, was a set of your first revealed work on rock & roll ranging from Esquire and continuing on from there, so it went again to 1967, is that proper?
That’s proper.

After which afterward you collected many longer items into Grown Up All Flawed, revealed by Harvard in what yr?
1998.

And that had an enormous perspective of the panorama of well-liked music over the earlier 25 years.
Sure, and it was all artist essays. There have been no generalizing items. I had written a whole lot of what I considered complete items on main artists in addition to items on much less main artists who I assumed deserved some important permanence, which you type of get if you publish a ebook with Harvard. Apart from Bob Dylan, who I’d achieved quite a bit within the first ebook, it handled nearly each main rock star, as I conceived it. A few of these have been based mostly on a column I did for the Village Voice referred to as “Rock & Roll &.” I stored writing that column till I obtained canned in 2006, after which “Rock & Roll &” continued at The Barnes & Noble Assessment the place I obtained an opportunity to put in writing about individuals I’d by no means had the center to write down about, notably Thelonious Monk. Rock & roll fan that I’m, Thelonious Monk might be my favourite musical artist. That piece took me a few month, as a result of I’m not musically literate in writing about jazz. After which I taught at NYU, I used to be previous 75, and I stated to myself if I’m going to do one other assortment I higher do it now. I truly ended up doing two — there’ll be one other one targeted on books popping out within the spring.

Referred to as Ebook Studies.
Proper. The title of Grown Up All Fallacious comes from a Rolling Stones music, Any Previous Approach You Select It is from a Chuck Berry music. This one is known as Is It Nonetheless Good to Ya?, which is a much less well-known music by much less well-known artists, Ashford & Simpson. That music had turn into the lynchpin of an essay that I needed to start the gathering with. It turned out to be about life and demise and responsible pleasures — my father died whereas I used to be writing that essay. I assumed Is It Nonetheless Good to Ya? was a superb title for someone who was in his late seventies and nonetheless writing about music, and I beloved the truth that it was from this non-pop hit by a married couple. Marriage is one other factor that issues a fantastic deal to me.

I might say there’s two methods by which this guide could be very totally different from the 2 earlier collections. As with Any Previous Approach You Select It, listed here are plenty of common items about music — fashionable music of all types within the first part, from a lecture on American exceptionalism in music to a bit referred to as “A Month on the Town” the place I set myself the duty of going out to see music each night time. However then there are artist essays. I’d stated within the introduction to Grown Up All Fallacious that there have been a bunch of artists I assumed I should be writing about sooner or later, and most of them are on this guide. I haven’t gotten to Louis Jordan but. And in addition I’ve written rather a lot about African music, I feel greater than some other pop critic in America, and I needed to place all that collectively in a approach that appeared coherent. And I did extra artist essays of the type which might be in Grown Up All Fallacious, most of them about artists who principally had no profile in 1998. Artists of this century.

One other factor that’s totally different about this e-book is that the thrust locates all totally different sorts of performers, data, songs and incidents inside a pop firmament. Issues are stars on this universe somewhat than on their very own, within the body of reference that they create.
That had not occurred to me however it makes good sense. I might assume that partly that’s as a result of the primary part has a generalizing historic sweep that then creates a context.

It got here into focus for me on the very finish whenever you write an obituary for Prince, “The Most Gifted Artist of the Rock Era.” On the finish of that piece you speak about “Little Red Corvette” and concerning the structural place that music has in pop music as we’ve skilled it during the last a number of many years. You’re not specializing in the track itself — its harmonics, its metaphors, the best way Lisa Coleman is available in on the finish. That track is a part of a a lot bigger argument. And that, it appears to me, is the form of the ebook.
What you’re saying could be very fascinating, however I additionally assume it displays our approaches. I imply, you and I at the moment are the grand previous males of this enterprise, proper? We’re guys of their seventies who’re nonetheless writing about pop music as if we care about it, as a result of we do. However your technique for a really very long time has been to hone in on particular person items which you’ll be able to broaden on. I’m positive you might write 1500 phrases about “Little Red Corvette,” no hassle . . .

Oh, I might do this asleep.
Whereas there’s all the time been a sociological context by which I’ve written. And it appears to me that that turns into extra specific due to the best way the ebook is constructed. And in addition, one different purpose: this e-book is, for higher or worse, autumnal. It ends with, amongst different issues, a bunch of songs about people who find themselves lifeless or dying.

Properly, I didn’t get that feeling in any respect, studying it. One of many issues that struck me is the sense of dedication to the topic, the sensation of its persevering with vitality and inventiveness, its emotional and even religious sustaining drive, and of battles that may by no means be settled. I’m speaking about excessive and in style tradition, amongst different issues. No matter you assume autumnal means, I discovered, extra power, extra vigor, extra sense of excessive stakes on this e-book than within the earlier ones. It’s a noisier ebook. And that could be for a similar type of purpose — that there’s a restricted time to take a stand, to outline a query, to go away a battlefield for others to occupy. However there’s no sense of quietude.
No. I assume that I’ll get to quietude ultimately, nevertheless it hasn’t occurred but.

Let’s get to “A Month on the Town.” It’s one of many items within the early part referred to as “History in the Making.” You set your self the duty in 2006 of going out each night time to see music. It jogged my memory of the character J. in Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days. J. is a hack New York journalist — as soon as interned on the Village Voice — and he’ll go to the opening of an envelope so long as there are free drinks and meals. So he units himself the duty of going out to an occasion each night time so long as he can. And he’s going to interrupt the document — nobody’s completely positive what the document is besides it’s a very very long time and the one that set it truly disappeared in the middle of his marathon. So J. units out, and it’s actually fairly a harrowing and ludicrous quest. However he’s not doing something as a result of he needs to do it, as a result of he’s on this product, or this film, or this showcase efficiency.
Besides perhaps for one or two nights, that wasn’t the way it ever was for me.

I needed to ask about stamina. Did you write about this stuff day-after-day after which put one thing collectively on the finish of the month? Did you sit down with scraps of notes and compose it? As a result of there isn’t any sense that this left you exhausted. You understand how sure individuals can end a mile or perhaps a marathon and say, “Okay, where’s the next one?” That’s the way it felt.
That’s nice. I don’t exit as a lot as I used to, and in 2006 I wasn’t going out as a lot as I had 20 years earlier than. However I see no purpose to not acknowledge that one cause I did that piece is that the Voice had been taken over by a hostile pressure from Phoenix. The enemy was someplace lurking and trying to hearth me, which they did about two months after that piece was completed. And for positive one factor I needed to do with that piece was say, “Fuck you. You think I’m some old fart? Here’s what I can do.” But in addition, I actually thought it will be fascinating, and it was fantastically fascinating. Each as soon as and some time I received drained, or I missed Carola, my spouse, who didn’t come to all these exhibits with me, although she got here to fairly a couple of and offered me with some good strains.

So far as the way it was carried out, I hold a gig log. The thought is each time I’m going to a present, that night time or the subsequent morning I write it down within the gig log. Typically they’re very scant, typically they’re very lengthy. And I wrote the piece from the gig log. Then I found out a solution to put all of it collectively. It begins with an entire bunch of bulleted observations from all over.

Christgau at Giorgio Gomelsky’s Zu Pageant in New York, October 17, 1978. Photograph credit score: Ebet Roberts/Getty Photographs

There are sidebars: headliners ranked good to dangerous, openers good to dangerous, greatest crowds, greatest musicianship, greatest costumery . . .
Ornette Coleman’s silk go well with. What a go well with.

However I feel lots of people is perhaps stunned to seek out that the large hero, the man who wipes the ground, is Robert Plant.
Robert Plant, who I don’t particularly like. I’ve revered him for a very long time, however I definitely didn’t anticipate him to be the most effective factor I noticed all month. It was a profit for Arthur Lee of Love, the place Ryan Adams wouldn’t even use the home band as a result of he’s such a stuck-up idiot. Apparently Plant rehearsed with the fucking home band for 2 days. This man has performed to extra individuals than anyone else on that present and he is aware of learn how to please a crowd and he simply went out and did it. One cause I respect him is that his affection for music usually has turn into fairly clear since Led Zeppelin broke up. I’m not loopy about his Alison Krauss report — you could be . . .

No, I feel it’s horrible.
However on this case, his love, the overall love, that was there.

Nicely, he’s a fan.
Proper. And like several fan he needs to inform individuals concerning the music he loves as a result of he thinks it’ll make their life higher.

That was close to the top of the month?
It was within the final quarter. I went with my daughter, who’s a Led Zeppelin fan, rather more than me or my spouse. Once we went out, it was raining cats and canine, and we didn’t care. I imply, it was an excellent, nice efficiency. And I’m a report man — my nice declare to fame is having reviewed 14,000 data. However nice performances — as I say in that piece, after a very good present you stroll house ready to stay eternally. This was a type of exhibits. After which the fourth greatest present that month was an African band I knew nothing of. I wanted to fill within the night time and I knew this present was over on Avenue C so I might stroll there, and Carola likes African music, so we went. They usually have been actually nice. Simply enjoying to 50 Decrease East Siders, a few of whom have been dancing, together with my spouse. You don’t know what’s going to occur. I imply, I keep in mind seeing Joe Ely on the Bitter Finish within the late Seventies or early Eighties. We have been on the late present and there have been perhaps 12 individuals there and he was fucking unbelievable. We’ve by no means forgotten that present. It’s fantastic when it occurs. And it occurred a good quantity of the time in that piece.

Nicely, sticking on this theme of plentitude . . .
Plentitude. That’s what I really like about fashionable music. That’s the rationale I assessment all these albums. I evaluate albums — actually constructive critiques — I do know I’ll by no means hear once more, ‘cause I’m simply not going to have the time. However persevering with to doc that plentitude is what I’m in it for. You recognize, democracy. And democracy is significantly threatened at this second. We’re each apprehensive about it however we will’t. . . . Fuck, we don’t know what’s going to occur.

No. There’s a second the place you’re writing about Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops. Teachout is a well known neo-con. I keep in mind a bit by him in The New Criterion the place he attacked, in a really informal, dismissive method, numerous so-called liberal shibboleths, together with public schooling. Simply a type of issues that we should always cease enthusiastic about. That’s who Terry Teachout is. And also 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 you then 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.’” However what you object to is the notion that there are elementary qualitative distinctions — that there are specific sorts of pleasures, sure sorts of sublimities, sure sorts of revelations, sure sorts of entry to human understanding that we discover in excessive tradition that we’ll by no means discover in in style tradition.
I’ve to inform you, these are points I’ve been enthusiastic about all my grownup life.

I do know.
That paragraph took me a day to put in writing. One paragraph.

Properly, you go on to say — I’m quoting this as a result of that is central not simply to the entire guide however 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 it’s standards of quality are more forgiving.” And it made me consider Gilbert Seldes and The 7 Vigorous Arts . . .
An early hero of mine . . .

. . . The place he makes the other declare. He says that an viewers for the New York Philharmonic will applaud with enthusiasm for a completely third-rate efficiency of a bit by Mozart or Beethoven or Bach or Brahms, whereas an viewers for a vaudeville evaluate won’t ever stand for a third-rate piece. They’ll yell, they’ll throw issues, they’ll stroll out. He says the essential high quality in widespread tradition is all the time larger as a result of excessive tradition audiences have purchased their very own hype. They realize it’s received to be good for you, it’s acquired to be elevated.
I feel that Seldes had not met The Apprentice. One of many many issues I hate about Donald Trump is that he embodies a type of highly regarded in style tradition that as close to as I’m capable of understand and abdomen is of no high quality in any way. Now, my late advisor Ellen Willis truly wrote certainly one of her fantastic late items during which she defended speak exhibits and Ricki Lake. It was an excellent piece however I nonetheless don’t need to see Ricki Lake’s present.

Let’s shift from that to certainly one of my favourite issues within the guide, which is a bit referred to as “B.E.: A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock and Roll.” At one time you have been going to write down a brief however complete guide on the historical past of widespread music, going again to the Egyptians, if I keep in mind appropriately.
That’s right. I do know quite a bit about Egyptian music. Or I did.

Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus. Photo credit: Linda Mevorach

Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus. Photograph credit score: Linda Mevorach

“A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock & Roll” begins a lot later than that in 1227, with “Moon, June, Spoon Meets Death Metal,” the place you’re speaking concerning the troubadours. You progress on from there to black slaves fiddling for white colonists in Jamestown, to Jim Crow, to Tin Pan Alley. A paragraph for every of those moments. They’re humorous, they’re instructive, all of them have, it appears, a yr of analysis behind them, they usually’re filled with a messianic fervor. What was your temper scripting this piece?
Nicely, I obtained my Guggenheim to do a historical past of in style music in ‘87, and it was already clear to me that writing it was going to be difficult. Although I didn’t surrender for some time — there’s additionally a bit on this ebook about Dionysus. However the “Prehistory of Rock & Roll” — I used to be capturing the shit with James Truman, who was the editor of Particulars within the early Nineties. Particulars was principally a males’s style journal, however he thought this might actually be good for his viewers. It was an opportunity to place it collectively and never lose all of what I knew — not that there was no new analysis, however it was an opportunity to make certain one thing got here of this maybe over-ambitious notion of mine. And, in truth, I feel so much has. That work is buried in loads of what I write. I used to be listening to African music earlier than I started that venture, however with none query being pressured to consider it made me go a lot deeper into African tradition and African historical past, and that’s mirrored in every little thing I write about African music.

I need to speak about a collection of items in the midst of the e-book that begins together 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 every case you’re actually wanting these individuals within the eye, and also you’re wanting on the individuals behind them. I’d wish to understand how you wrote the Coasters piece. That was the large shock for me. Hadn’t learn that piece earlier than.
Most of these items did have information hooks. I’m a journalist, I’ve to fake to be overlaying the information, even when it’s truly not my chief concern. Within the case of the Coasters there was no information hook however I’d all the time needed to write down about them, as a result of I cared a lot about them as a youngster. So I did it for nothing. I wish to receives a commission once I write, I feel it’s good for you . . .

There’s additionally the cash. Which we will all use.
However like a couple of items on this guide this was a lecture that I wrote for the then-called EMP Pop Convention, now-called MoPOP, in Seattle, run by Eric Weisbard and Ann Powers. A variety of analysis went into that piece. I ultimately reached Carl Gardner, the surviving Coaster. And he had written an autobiography, which he despatched me.

Unpublished.
Unpublished. Which I nonetheless have in my information. That helped lots.

That’s the place the piece opens up. I assumed I knew a good quantity concerning the Coasters — I feel the third piece I ever revealed, in 1969, was concerning the Coasters — however studying this piece I noticed I didn’t know something concerning the Coasters. It was a terrific story, and I worth the storytelling on this ebook: this individual’s life is a superb story, and it’s a conundrum; we don’t absolutely perceive it, we don’t know the place this got here from, however let’s take a look at it.
I consider there’s a biographical fallacy.

Me too — 90 % of music critics, they haven’t any different means of writing about something. The fallacy is their philosophy.
However once I write these essential profiles, most of them have some biography in them, and there’s numerous causes for that. One is that I’m very enthusiastic about what it takes to supply artwork. I wrote a bit that’s not within the e-book concerning the class background of Fifties rock and rollers. I might discover that there would typically be some shade of tradition with a capital C within the backgrounds of people that have been principally working class. What number of have been academics? And I attempted, then, to attach the life to the work. Though typically one of many issues I do is to say, “No, you would think that the life would do this but in fact it did that.” I discover the biographical fallacy — it’s loopy to assume that the artwork expresses the life. Nevertheless it’s equally loopy to assume the artwork has nothing to do with the life.

It comes right down to Albert Murray saying that if Bessie Smith actually is the expression of 400 years of African-American — he would have used the time period Negro — ache and struggling, it’s very fascinating that 400 years of African-American ache and struggling has solely produced one Bessie Smith.
Precisely.

That’s the place it’s a must to battle the battle that it’s merely sociology. Etta James can’t be typical of something. That’s why so many individuals ignore her, as a result of she will’t be made to play a neat sociological perform.
Proper, and other people hold speaking about her as a soul singer when the truth is she got here from Nebraska and grew up in Los Angeles.

And San Francisco.
And San Francisco, that’s proper. And what appears to be actually essential about Etta James, in addition to her voice, which might be the only most necessary factor, and it’s only a bodily attribute . . .

No . . .
Nicely, she developed it, sure, however no one else might have developed that voice.

However there’s thought in each syllable . . .
Sure. And you realize, individuals assume Elvis Presley is dumb. Jerry Lee Lewis is dumb. They’re by no means dumb. Virtually by no means — it occurs, however it’s uncommon. Etta James, you learn the guide that she did with David Ritz, that is an extremely insightful, sensible, articulate individual. Didn’t go to school, didn’t go to highschool, didn’t matter. Lady has monumental brains. As does, for example, Sam Cooke. To me it’s essential that Sam Cooke, along with being a man who would go down and play cube with the boys to show to himself that he was real, he travelled with a library and he learn all these books about black historical past whereas he was singing for wealthy white individuals on the Copa. It was all occurring in the identical individual.

You stated there was playful stuff that you simply needed to miss of the guide and also you regretted that. What are you speaking about?
I used to do issues on the Voice referred to as Licks — temporary evaluations. I keep in mind one about Lee Dorsey opening for the Conflict. I’m wondering if I might have squeezed that in? However there’s a bit about Holy Modal Rounders — I used to be in search of the correct one, and I didn’t discover it till after the guide was put collectively. I referred to as my editor and persuaded him to let me squeeze one other 500 phrases in. Holy Modal Rounders didn’t have to be on this guide, besides in as far as I truly love Peter Stampfel as an artist and was sorry to not be together with him.

They’re part of your sensibility. They’ve been a companion by means of a few years.
Ever since I put Have Moicy! on and received up from my nap so I might flip it over, one thing I might by no means do. It’s a report Stampfel made with Michael Hurley and Jeffrey Frederick in ‘76. He truly hand delivered it to the Voice. I barely knew who he was. He simply handed it to me, I went house, performed the primary aspect — I used to be actually drained, it was a Monday — performed the primary aspect, stated, “Shit!” Turned it over and I stored enjoying all of it night time. And I’ve by no means ever gotten uninterested in it, ever. Certainly one of my favourite data of all time. So I needed to have it in there.

christgau book is it still good

Duke is publishing two collections, this one and E-book Stories, which is your first assortment of items on books. And it exhibits the event of a crucial sensibility in a extra full means than Is It Nonetheless Good to Ya?
In a extra autobiographical kind of means. There are fairly a couple of items from the early Seventies in that guide.

It’s your first time overlaying that territory however you cowl the entire territory. So right here is Duke behind you with two books, each round 400 and a few pages. Inform me about working with Duke.
I did this guide as a result of I do know Ken Wissoker from the Pop Convention. Ken, like me, is basically concerned with African music and revealed a somewhat good ebook concerning the Congo, Rumba Guidelines, that I wrote about — the piece is on this ebook. Duke is a tutorial home. I’m not making some huge cash off of those books and I’m in all probability not gonna. However Ken greater than some other educational editor I’m conscious of appreciates non-academic writing on well-liked music. Actually understands that a whole lot of the neatest stuff is completed by journalists. And I feel that is truest in music. Not as true because it was, as a result of the venues aren’t there anymore and the cash isn’t both. However for all of my reservations about Pitchfork, and totally different sorts of reservations about Noisey, the place I nonetheless publish a column, there’s intellectually formidable work being finished in each of these locations that would not be carried out in academia. I don’t assume that many individuals within the educational publishing world perceive that — it’s a must to care about pop music in a deep means, and Ken does. He’s a document collector. You sit down and there’ll all the time be one thing he needs to speak abou — he’s heard the document that you simply haven’t by Cécile McLorin Salvant, the jazz singer. You’ll be able to have that speak with him.

The final piece within the guide is an obituary for Leonard Cohen.
No, the final piece within the ebook is concerning the New York Dolls. They’re gonna stay perpetually.

Yeah, the New York Dolls are gonna reside perpetually, however there are additionally obituaries for Prince, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen in that final part. However I didn’t get the sensation ending the guide that I used to be ending something. That this is able to be a final e-book. I don’t assume it must be. Have you ever given any thought to a different music assortment?
It’s not straightforward to publish collections. I’ve given thought to it.

I’m considering of a a lot shorter e-book that’s much more playful, doesn’t have an overarching function to it, besides that it might be enjoyable to learn.
Nicely, as I say within the introduction to this guide, I really like collections. I turned a journalist as a result of I learn collections. A.J. Liebling’s The Candy Science was a key one, however there are various others together with Ads For Myself and stuff by Murray Kempton. Pauline Kael’s I Misplaced it on the Films was actually essential. I really like Pauline Kael as a critic and emulate her in my very own approach. Nevertheless it’s an fascinating thought, and so far as I’m involved there’s stuff on the market that’s collectible. So far as the obits are involved, they have been achieved as a result of I’m the resident elder at Noisey, and I volunteered. The Bowie was written in a short time — three hours, which was attainable due to the construction. It’s an inventory. The others I labored extra assiduously on. However I all the time knew I needed to finish this e-book with the piece concerning the New York Dolls. As a result of they’re my favourite band, and One Day It Will Please Us to Keep in mind Even That is an album I play to this present day. Often when individuals make one other document after 32 years, it’s not a terrific signal. And initially the Dylan piece that precedes it was in a unique order, earlier than an Ornette Coleman piece. However the first sure galleys got here again and it didn’t look proper on the web page. The Dylan piece could be very brief — it was a part of an interview I’d achieved with Spiked. It took them a yr to publish the interview, and in that point Dylan had gotten the Nobel, they usually requested me to reply. I wrote it in about 10 minutes. So the ultimate order was partly an accident of web page design. However I assumed, “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 feel that’s a part of my feeling concerning the end of the e-book not likely feeling like an ending.
Nicely, good. Johansen was speaking about how he was going to overcome the world with this document. He had this Buddhist rhetoric, and I used to be very conscious that I used to be ending it there, with this sense of ongoing power. As a result of the New York Dolls are nonetheless alive, I’m nonetheless alive — I really feel very alive — and I needed to finish there, however with a recognition of the everlasting.

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