Recently by Robert Christgau
Whether she can make this happen, of course, remains to be seen. Her concept is to eliminate the series editor concept, dividing the pre-reading she does (and has been paid to do) among a 10-person editorial board that will presumably, as per tradition, winnow a vast number of possibilities down to a manageable 100-something that will then be further winnowed down to 30 or 40 by a guest editor who also adds his or her personal selections to the mix. In the past, most guest editors have been grateful to have a field to choose from and not added all that much of their own. That was my approach. But I know of at least one case in which the guest editor's selections were probably predominant. How all that would sort out under this plan remains unclear, as of course it must at this point. Also unclear is the eternal problem of indie projects: distribution. Knowing almost nothing about the book business myself, my special concern would be library sales. The great thing about the Best Music Writing books is that they help interested high school and college-age readers locate stimulating writing about music beyond the welter of online overproduction and the manifest limitations of Rolling Stone and the hip-hop press. I've enjoyed some editions more than others. But I know, for instance, that Holly George-Warren bases her course in music writing at SUNY New Paltz entirely on the series. It's been invaluable in an undervalued field. Please do whatever you can to help it continue.
For a long time, Hilburn was the most powerful rock critic in the country. He and I have been friendly for many years, largely because he's such an engaged and agreeable guy, and ultimately those qualities are the secret of his success. Though it's tempting to attribute his power totally to his position as chief critic at the biggest paper in the capital of the music industry, the L.A. Times, that really doesn't explain it. The book makes clear that he was aware of who he was expected to please when. But he's also at some pains to point out times he didn't. And though lots of people I know have resented him over the years, I've never heard anyone characterize him as Machiavellian, interested in power for its own sake. His secret was his genuine enthusiasm for the most high-minded kinds of conventional rock--a basic taste set he shared with Nelson, except that Nelson was much pickier--and his appetite for personal contact with the people who made it. This Nelson also shared, only without Hilburn's social skills and indefatigable energy. Hilburn was the biz's idea of what a quality critic should be.
The reason I'd originally stopped reading Cornflakes With John Lennon is that neither Hilburn's prose style nor his critical insights were worthy of his enthusiasm. What the best daily critics do is convey basic information to the general reader in a way that will also offer some kind of new perspective to the more knowledgeable fan. As far as I'm concerned, this means avoiding generalized boilerplate like "looking bravely at their own deepest fears and grandest dreams," like "Jerry Lee has always been as brash as he is talented," like "you couldn't deny the artistry of Cube's words and Dre's exquisite beats," like "a raspy, soulful voice that captured beautifully the poignant quality . . ." I wasn't learning enough, so I moved on.
I'm glad I picked the book up again, though. Cornflakes With John Lennon isn't a collection per se. It's a memoir of Hilburn's career that relies heavily and sometimes verbatim on his previously published words. And its cumulative effect is actually damned impressive. Because he was who he was as a person as well as a professional, including a workaholism that he implies ruined his first marriage and I'm not convinced he ever entirely controlled, Hilburn achieved unmatched access and conducted more major rock-star interviews than anyone ever. And these interviews were never fluff jobs--they examined artistic choices and artistic meanings. It's true and regrettable that he had no taste for pop proper even when the artist was as slippery deep as Madonna. Nor did he feel funk's exquisite beats. And he was too drawn to heroes, which means the book is shot through with Springsteen, who he was on early, and Bono, who once told him, "Look, I'm sick of Bono, and I am Bono." Nevertheless, he was always and still remains not just a believer, but a critical one. When you choose to make a life out of arts journalism, that's plenty--in its own way, more than either Nelson or Willis found it worth their while to do.
In 2000 I met him in at his retirement home in Sitges, near Barcelona, for a Voice piece called "Thinking About Musicking," and eventually Perfect Sound Forever published a transcript of our conversation. Musicking was the title of the third and most theoretical of his books, my own favorite--a prolonged argument based on a concert performance that rather than an art concerned most fundamentally with time, the standard view, music is an art concerned most fundamentally with relationships, and also that music is more properly a verb than a noun. He did a brief lecture tour in the States a few years later and he and his then companion, later husband Neville Braithwaite came over for dinner along with PSF's Jason Gross. They were both extraordinarily kind and gracious men. Charles Keil wrote recently:
Somewhere in the early 1980s I remember finally reading the chapters of Chris's first book and feeling elated, healed, challenged, and most of all, surprised that points I was trying to make in anger, filled with righteous indignation, could be made concisely, clearly, elegantly, in a prose style for which I still can't find the precisely "right" adjective--the word that means non-polemical, even gentle, ways of proceeding that nevertheless inflict great and lasting damage on a powerful and opposing point of view.
Chris had been ailing since shortly after Neville's death in 2007, and just a few weeks ago his friend Susan McClary--the American musicologist who's done the most to combat the same tendencies he did (and who has the facts at email@example.com if anyone is interested in doing coverage)--asked his admirers to put their feelings into words to help cheer him up with the end clearly near. Keil's passage comes from his tribute. I asked the regular commenters on my Expert Witness blog to offer their thoughts. You'll find a few of those comments after the jump--one from an academic, one from a journalist, one from a devoted music fan. That all three should be so eloquent is a pretty great tribute in itself.
The author is James C. McKinley Jr., who recently seems to have been augmenting Ben Sisario on the paper's pop news beat. I hadn't previously noticed his name, so I looked him up, and found an explanation of sorts. On July 15, McKinley picked up an AP item and wrote a brief story assertively and optimisitically headlined "Creem Magazine to Publish Again." I presume that to avoid running a correction, which wasn't quite justified, the Times instead gave this fantasy a full page of its precious real estate. C'est la vie. A few corrections are in order, however. As I hope someone has told the Times by now, Lester Bangs was not the first editor of Creem. Dave Marsh was. And though this is a somewhat more interpretive matter, Bangs never "threatened in print to stab James Taylor for writing touchy-feely songs." He merely described what was explicitly a fantasy (not in Creem, as it happens) in which he ran Taylor through with a broken Ripple bottle. That's different. Don't give McKinley any stories about hip-hop and violence, OK guys?
Still is, in fact, so I'll be brief on those two points before putting the crucial fact indicated in my title in the public record. In the matter of wonderful I'll just say that when I report on such ecumenical conferences I always tend to say the same thing--that the journalists smoked the academics. At this one, the academics were great: Willis's husband Stanley Aronowitz on her political ideology, Michael Berube on her aesthetic ideology, Daphne Brooks unearthing a photograph of a college-age Willis with Lorraine Hansberry in a valiant attempt to address the inconvenient fact that Willis's rock criticism was very light on African-American music, and ringer Scott McLemee of the National Book Critics Circle explaining why Willis's pop bent was preferable to Susan Sontag's elitism. With one major exception, the middle-aged journos were fine too. But the young critics Nona brought together were for the most part distressingly ignorant, and I'll leave it at that. I could write reams about any of this stuff, in part because rock criticism is a big deal to me and--to get to momentous--because Willis was such a major figure in my own life, as hours of discussion afterward made all too clear. But for now (and maybe forever) I'll let it be. Except for that one thing.
Nona W. A. got something wrong in her introduction, and now I see it popping up in reviews of Out of the Vinyl Deeps. I consider it important enough to have made it the focus of my own brief talk at the conference, so I want to repeat now: Ellen Willis's first piece of rock criticism, her monumental and still resonant essay on Bob Dylan, was not initially published in the nine-issue "counterculture" magazine Cheetah, where this budding left-feminist intellectual was second in command. It was first published in Commentary--as of late 1967, when it appeared, not yet fully transformed into the loathsome vehicle of neocon belligerence we have come to studiously ignore and/or know so well. I was involved in how this happened, but I'll let that be too. The reason I think it's important is that it illustrates how fluid the culture of the late '60s was. First, this young Marxist-libertarian hybrid is so palpably intelligent and as yet unformed that she not only gets an assignment from a Commentary all too aware that there's a youth culture out there it had better get a grip on, but then publishes an essay that compares Bob Dylan not, as Ellen used to say, to Robert Burns, as Commentary presumably hoped, but to Andy Warhol, an artist it is safe to guess everyone there loathed. Then, this cheesy "counterculture" magazine seeded with Diners Club money (credit cards! that might be an idea!) publishes a slightly revised version of an essay that had already appeared in one of America's most highbrow outlets.
I'll close by observing that it wasn't "magazines" that made these assignments. It was editors: first Marion Magid, who from what I read proved a total Podhoretz loyalist but had something resembling an open mind at the time, and then Larry Dietz, who had the chutzpah to hire this hyperintelligent woman (Willis, not Magid) when he inherited his cheesy-mag-he-tried-so-hard-to-make-not-cheesy from an earlier e-in-c who took too many drugs. When Dietz emailed me about Willis's book a month ago, I saw that even he had forgotten that the Dylan essay first surfaced in Commentary. But when I reminded him, he agreed that this was a telling and truly remarkable detail--the chopped walnut on the cheeseball, so to speak.
The subject of the column is why the Jazz Journalists Association has never given a Lifetime Achievement Award to an African-American writer. Giddins makes three obvious suggestions: Albert Murray, Amiri Baraka, and Stanley Crouch. Murray is now 95 and reportedly very frail, and I suppose the JJA could complain that he was never really a journalist--at best, an essayist, tsk tsk. Also, he has very conservative tastes--basically never adjusted to bebop. Who cares? Stomping the Blues is a profound and generative work, and he's 95. Get on it. Similarly, one could observe that it's been a long time since Baraka wrote much music journalism (and whisper that in addition he's an ideologue whose ideas are often, tsk tsk, questionable, plus we think he doesn't respect us, boo hoo). Who cares? He's Amiri Baraka, for Chrissake. He researched Blues People in Room 315 of the NYPL 50 years ago, and yeah, he got stuff wrong--while starting a crucial conversation that reminded white admirers of African-American culture that black people might have something of their own to say about these things. He's no spring chicken either. Get on it. And then, the very next year, my always contentious and often irritating old pal and editee Crouch. A curmudgeon, a player, a pain in the ass. Who cares? I would hesitate to account even Giddins a more broadly influential jazz critic in this period unless somebody came up with a metric now unknown to me. Get on it.
Anyway, I barely scratched the surface and overresearched even so. The videos, which I only looked at after struggling through the slough of too much information for the better part of a week, proved less gratuitous than I'd feared--some of them are pretty funny. But for the purposes of this forum I was especially struck by a few details of written coverage that wouldn't have come close to fitting into one of those pieces where I kept deleting side comments and comparative sallies.
1) One of the best treatises I found was by Nitsuh Abebe, the best rock critic New York magazine has had on board in a long time. Hed: "Where's the Beef?" Subhed: "The flimsy fury of Lady Gaga's Born This Way." Sounds pretty damning, right? It's not. I didn't ask Abebe, because I didn't want to get him in trouble if he disliked these supposed summations as much as I did. So I could be wrong. Certainly Abebe argues (correctly) that she's probably not profound enough to inspire so many treatises. But that's not the same thing as calling her flimsy. More to the point is that, intellectually and lots of other ways, she's a mess, as Abebe notes rather fondly in the end. I suspect the entrenched anti-rock forces at the mag of slanting a far subtler piece of work their way.
2) There are a lot of biographies--a lot. Hard to count--who can tell what all these books are?--but over a dozen. The one I read was by an Englishman with some moderately solid journalistic credentials when I Googled him named Paul Lester. Moderately solid it was, though I got my money quote from a woman named Maureen Callahan, who apparently befriended or paid a remarkably unvindictive ex-friend of Gaga's with literary pretensions which he put to work in piece for Esquire, Brendan Sullivan by name. But here's the thing about Lester. He's listed at Amazon as "Paul Lester Ph.D. Jou" What the hell is that, I wondered. Jouissance? Nah. Ah, of course--journalism. But I'd never heard of it. So I asked Mr. Google, and every hit I found brought me back to Paul Lester. Did the guy make up a degree for himself? Did his publisher? Oi.
3) Funniest line in any of the bios I looked at (there were four in the NYU library) came from Briton Helia Phoenix's Lady Gaga: Just Dance: "Because of her family's Italian heritage, there was always tasty Italian food in the house, such as meatballs and marinara, . . . " Those taste-deprived Britons and their enduring fondness for organ grinders. "Such as meatballs and marinara"! Phoenix's book just came out in the U.S., where meatballs and marinara are less exotic. Sentence was untouched.
This is all very heartwarming, I hope, but what's going on now with Troitsky isn't. He did well after "Communism" fell, as you might expect, but he was only a hustler, not a thug, so smart as he was he certainly didn't get rich. Though he had his idealistic side--a concert for Chernobyl victims brought him early prominence--he was always apolitical; his sympathies were with Russia's chronically sardonic bohemian avant-garde. As he wrote early on and I quoted in the Voice: "We will never be the driving force in any political movement simply because we deeply and sincerely dislike politics." Troitsky became the first editor of the Russian version of Playboy, and after that ended settled into minor fame as Russia's most prominent music journalist. I lost track of him a decade ago.
Until a few days ago, when I found out from two stories in Britain's Independent, one news and one commentary, that he was being sued for a million rubles--about 30 grand, I think--for calling a rock star a poodle. It's odd that this is how both sides are spinning the suit, because the insulting part wasn't really the dog comparison, even though that's the claim of Vadim Samoylov of the goth band Agata Kristi (couldn't leave that out). What Troitsky said was that Samoylov was the poodle of a specific individual, Medvedev apparatchik Vladislav Surkov. Poodle? Slander! Lackey's lackey? Who could possible complain of being associated with such an august personage?
This is only one of four lawsuits recently brought against Troitsky. And before we bewail the crackdown on independent arts journalism--a real enough problem in itself, apparently, as well as a tack Troitsky is taking and more power to him--it's worth noting that Art is apolitical no longer. The news story says he had "recently become an outspoken campaigner on issues such as plans to build a motorway through a forest in the Moscow region." There's a different kind of quote about politics, too: "I am no politician but I have watched how political opposition in Russia has been neutered. There is so much frustration at the grassroots. I will not be made to shut up, I won't give in to pressure." Ain't freedom from totalitarian oppression grand?
Of course, it's a credit to EMP that one never wants to skip a session--and that quite often there are two things you really want to hear going on at once. Not only did I miss Jonathan Lethem on Talking Heads because we both presented in the same slot, I missed David Sanjek on academic agoraphobia because he was up against Greil Marcus's "Music About Money" panel, both the reportedly and as I'd figured hilarious Scott Seward about the vinyl trade and J. D. Considine on the death of hi-fi because I wanted my wife to see David Ritz on Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and money and also because I wanted to see Ritz myself. Like that. It's the world's greatest concentration of pop music speculation and scholarship and has been for a decade now--this was its 10th year.