Culture Fix: Robert Chrisgau, doyen of US music critics, retires

After more than 40 years at the top of the music journalism game, Robert Christgau, formerly of the Village Voice and legendary author of the 'Consumer guide' series has this month announced his retirement from writing his weekly column. To mark this end of an era, academic and writer Donal Mac an Eala writes a moving tribute to a unique, encylopedically rich voice in music and cultural criticism.

Arts & Culture, Features, Music & Dance, Profiles - Posted on Sunday, August 15, 2010 0:13 - 0 Comments

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By Donal Mac an Eala

Once a Village Voice music critic, he has been, in the last two years or so, working with MSN which, a month or so ago, has finally discontinued his reviews. However, he is still writing, for example he does an essay for Barnes and Noble each month and works with NPR.

It was his Consumer Guide which has definied the art of self-reflectivity in music criticism: His pithy reviews of albums (and on occasions songs) have built up and up into a body of work that spans a period of more than 40 years.

And it’s no overstatement to suggest that he has been one of the defining influences on my own musical taste, not to say that my taste shadowed his – not for him metal, or the more esoteric byways of dance, and not for me that in-depth knowledge of soul [definitely my loss] or roots or African music, but it was an influence nonetheless.

He’s been a presence in my musical life since I was 16 when the school library in Greendale Community School [Kilbarrack] gave a group of us money to purchase new books for it. One of those purchased was Christgau’s Consumer Guide of the 1970s. Eventually having had it out on permanent loan I was forced to get a copy of my own.

It’s a hefty book, and that original edition has an illustration of a set of headphones with a lightning streak running between them, but somehow that’s a muted image and therefore nowhere near as flashy as that might suggest.

It’s chastening to think that when I first read that book, in 1981, Zeppelin had broken up barely a year before, Joy Division likewise, the Rolling Stones were arguably in the earlier stages of their career (I joke, sort of), the charts were groaning under the weight of new wave and post-punk. In other words, that entire musical universe of the 1970s was so recent that the vinyl was still soft – so to speak, even if we pretended to have no interest in anything prior to 1977 (or more realistically Ska or the New wave of British Heavy Metal). And here, here was a book which took it all seriously (bar metal, always a blind spot of Christgau’s), which threw in Funkadelic and Steely Dan and the Beatles and said… it’s all valid but what’s good is good, what’s bad is bad. A useful lesson to learn.

Each little review was an often perfect synthesis of critique, wit and knowledge in a couple of hundred words or less, and the overall whole recognising that music was a spectrum. Another useful lesson to learn.

And that first Consumer Guide, despite the fact it took decades for me to hear even a quarter of its contents, pointed to the fact that there was so much out there and that even if it was in styles and genres that I might not like now, perhaps, just perhaps, I would someday

And that, too, was a hugely useful lesson to learn.

And he wasn’t even middle aged when the first book came out. Okay he was about 37… old enough in those days. He was married, over 30 and therefore effectively middle aged… and yet, oddly, so was Ian Curtis’s voice. Sure, so was almost everyone making music at that point in time. They were old, whether 21 or 31 or, God forbid, 41 (and the remarkable longevity of the current era – and that’s not necessarily a criticism – was still some way off). They were bloody well older than 16.

Revelatory about punk, but also noting that punk wasn’t a one-off, that it, too, had roots, and that there had been other movements before, that that too was part of a continuity. I also think he has had – and one hopes will continue to have – a real ability to lock in, through words, that almost mystical aspect of music, that near synesthetic quality it has where it infuses and reflects those stray moments in life.

Some quotes perhaps will demonstrate his efficacy with words…

The O’Jays Family Reunion
[Philadelphia International, 1975]
In which Jesse Jackson (or is it Reverend Ike) goes disco, proving that the words do too matter. The self-serving, pseudopolitical pap Kenny Gamble sets his boys to declaiming here underlines the way the overripeness of this vocal and production style can go mushy, which it does. Even the working-class party anthem “Livin’ for the Weekend” is ruined by the rest of the side–some play-her-like-a-violin soft-core, and the unspeakable (would it were unsingable) “I Love Music.” Moral: the rich and the superrich shit–the nouveau riche can fuck you over too. C
Boston Third Stage
[MCA, 1986]
Never again can us wiseasses call it corporate rock without thinking twice. Whatever possessed Tom Scholz to spend seven years perfecting this apparently unoccupied articulation of an art-metal thought extinct years ago, it wasn’t megaplatinum ambition. He’s more like the Archbishop of Latter-Day Arena Rock, perfecting majestic guitar sounds and angelic vocals for hockey-rink cathedrals the world over–and also, since he’s patently reluctant to venture from his studio retreat, elegiac melodies suitable to a radio ministry. If he seems more hobbyist than artist, more Trekkie than Blind Boy Grunt, that’s no reason to get snobbish. And no reason to listen, either. C
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
[Warner Bros., 1977]
Get this straight: no matter what the chicmongers want to believe, to call this band dangerous is more than a suave existentialist compliment. They mean no good. It won’t do to pass off Rotten’s hatred and disgust as role-playing–the gusto of the performance is too convincing. Which is why this is such an impressive record. The forbidden ideas from which Rotten makes songs take on undeniable truth value, whether one is sympathetic (“Holidays in the Sun” is a hysterically frightening vision of global economics) or filled with loathing (“Bodies,” an indictment from which Rotten doesn’t altogether exclude himself, is effectively anti-abortion, anti-woman, and anti-sex). These ideas must be dealt with, and can be expected to affect the way fans think and behave. The chief limitation on their power is the music, which can get heavy occasionally, but the only real question is how many American kids might feel the way Rotten does, and where he and they will go next. I wonder–but I also worry. A

And this spot-on precis of the vastly overrated ‘Them Crooked Vultures’, from his last column…

Them Crooked Vultures: ‘Them Crooked Vultures’
(DGC/Interscope)
Grade: B MINUS
In his demure way, macho formalist Josh Homme has emerged as a post-Nirvana rock auteur to rival Jack White himself. Signature project taking a break? No prob. He’ll just hire the supposed musical glue of the heaviest aggregation of all time, wave his magic bushwhacker and turn Nirvana’s most successful member back into the drummer we wish he’d remained, and pound out what any blindfolded stoner with girlfriend problems would yell in your face was another Queens of the Stone Age album, and later for effing Eagles of Death Metal. Homme sees the humor in his formalism even if his fans don’t, and the all-star rhythm section does add fluidity. But in the end this is hard-rawk nirvana with a small “n” — a world of unusually hot sex and skull-busting drugs young guys with girlfriend problems will wish was so. I mean, that is one hell of a market share.

He also writes somewhat longer pieces, take this one on The Eagles which is notable for… well, look, people should read it for themselves.

The other aspect of this was that it was US-based, with that curious view of music from this side of the Atlantic that is reflective of the prism that is US music and media. I loved that slightly alien quality and still do. In a way, in this digital period, that dynamic has buckled somewhat. If I go to emusic I can find material from obscure indie or dance bands from Canada, or Germany or wherever. And of course it’s all available now.

I still treasure the first Consumer Guide, it’s on the bookshelves in the front room (those shelves winnowed down in recent years with many other newer books transferred to the attic) because it has genuinely become a part of my life. I was reading it as recently as the weekend, flicking through idly, fascinated by his thoughts on Prince or Springsteen or Bob Seeger, or whoever.

The next book from the 1980s was, on some levels, more and yet less fascinating because it paralleled my own musical experience more closely, but also pointed out the gaps. The 1990s one perhaps a little less so again, most likely because my own tastes tended to solidify and, also, that I was more familiar with their contents. As it happened though, and perhaps tellingly, I only purchased them in the early 2000s in a secondhand bookshop in New York. None more appropriate!

I hope that he continues to write because his is a voice that music needs now more than ever as it fragments yet further .

He’s quoted on a recent Slate Magazine Culture Gabfest podcast that discussed his retirement as saying that his Consumer Guide elaborates on…

‘My life theory of why popular music is the greatest of the arts’…

Sounds about right to me

Donal Mac an Eala works in politics, lectures in various aspects of contemporary culture and is a writer and blogger. He is also a contributor to the Cedar Lounge Revolution

[A version of this article also appears on the Cedar Lounge Revolution website.]

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