Son of
Thoughts From The Beach

By Beppe Colli
Aug. 1, 2010

My summer holidays having finally started just a few days before, I was sitting peacefully under the sun (the sea in front of me, a hill full of trees behind me, a few seagulls flying high above my head - the perfect cure for my fried nerves) when suddenly one of my cell phones broke the silence. It was with a growing feeling of anxiety that I noticed that the one ringing was the red one, my intercontinental "hot line" for all dramatic news bearing impossible-to-foresee repercussions. This, in fact, was exactly the case: "Microsoft did not renew Christgau's contract, his Consumer Guide won't appear in MSN Music anymore, and now it looks like Christgau will abandon the format forever. It's the end of an era." In a New York minute I was surfing the Web.

The first two days in July gave me the complete panorama, though news were a lot thinner than I anticipated. There was an official piece by Christgau. A mini-interview with Christgau by Ann Powers in her blog in the Los Angeles Times. A mini-piece by Jason Gross in his blog in PopMatters. Then a dry piece by Christgau (title: "End of an Era"?) in the blog of The National Arts Journalism Program. I managed to find a few mini-pieces by various US newspapers, most of them quoting at length from Christgau's official first piece. Due to habit, I accessed RockCritics, where (as it was to be expected) I found nothing: alas!, for a long time now, this website has not been the perennial source of news and debate it once was thanks to the great work of my esteemed colleagues Scott Woods and Steven Ward. A few days later I sent an e-mail message to an English colleague (a "colleague of his", not a "colleague of ours", if this is clear) hoping to get a few more details about all things Christgau, but (incredibly!) he didn't even know the first facts about it, in fact he was quite surprised to hear about this happening, which sounded quite strange to me, and maybe one more dark sign of the times.

Christgau is not unemployed, of course - let's just remember his teaching position at NYU, his collaboration to All Things Considered, those fine pages written for Barnes & Noble Review, plus all he'll be able to come up with, as it was already the case in the past. Nonetheless, I thought the attention given to this piece of news to be on the muted side, given Christgau's public relevance in his field of work (let's not forget about the book Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough - Essays in Honor of Robert Christgau, published in 2002, at the time of his 60th birthday). It's entirely possible, of course, that for many the proverbial "end of an era" had been his being fired by the Village Voice, four years ago, at the time when the historic magazine had been sold. And so, maybe that had been perceived as being the "real end" of the Consumer Guide, his monthly column which had its start in the Village Voice in 1969 (but many agree that - far from being a spent force - the column was experiencing a second wind in this new MSN Music location). Maybe the truth is that nowadays critics are such meaningless figures - better said, inside today's media consumer framework (a chaotic Babel) the work of a critic has such a feeble echo that even the fate of an important critic such as Christgau doesn't appear to be worth knowing about.

The way I see Christgau's work (which I happened to read for the first time at the end of the 70s in the pages of US monthly Creem, which at the time featured his Consumer Guide off the Village Voice) is in many ways quite peculiar. When it comes to the 60s, some of my "favourite artists" - Kinks, Stones, Hendrix, Creedence - also appear among his favourites; however, the opposite is true when it comes to names such as Doors, Zappa, Airplane. Things take a turn for the worse when it comes to the 70s, me digging people such as Van Der Graaf Generator, Hammill, Can, and Zappa, with Christgau rooting for New York Dolls and Ramones. Sometimes I think of Christgau as a "rock critic" in the US meaning of the expression (to simplify: Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth), but it would be pretty absurd to state as true, given his great (and greatly atypical: for reasons of both age and race) attention when it comes to hip hop, techno, Afro-pop, and more: from Dr. Dre to Kanye West; from Pink to M.I.A.; from Pavement and Sleater-Kinney to Vampire Weekend. In a nutshell, Christgau is a very serious person (honest, too: something which on paper is a given, I know, but...) who respects readers, music, musicians, and paid work; so his writings deserve one's respect well beyond the fact of one having (sometimes dramatically) different opinions about this or that.

There are many "political" (in a US sense) streams running through Christgau's work, starting with his choosing a name like Consumer Guide for his regular column (in the 60s!), to the way he sees "intellectual" work - which includes music, criticism, and teaching, of course - as a social artifact. Plus, there's always - be it implicit, or overt - a "working class" dimension that makes it impossible for one to forget things such as class and race.

Those who have never read his "capsule reviews" are invited not to get ready for shoddy work plus a grade: his prose is dense, his links complex, his ideas original (no press releases disguised as reviews here!). A very large part of Christgau's work can be accessed on his (eminently searchable) website, even long articles and books, so for once it's not like there's a paucity of material (I hope I'm not wrong when I say that his reviews are in the tens of thousand). Those who like to go deeper still will easily find some interviews on the Web.

I was sitting in the sun, when I heard a strange sound. I opened my eyes, and I noticed a very fat lady who precariously balanced a tiny transistor radio on her stomach while laying on a beach easy chair. Add tiny headphones, and voilà, instant nirvana.

This sight immediately brought me to the 60s and 70s, when the couple sea-radio (and, during the winter, homework-radio) was de rigueur.

Sometimes I think that those who came later - not to mention those who came up in the age of downloading, when music is "immaterial", and so easily portable - have great difficulty understanding what was so important in the way people listened to the radio  at that time (a certain something which - while not being by any means a generative model - can be seen as being at the root of a certain multistylistic approach that's typical of quite a few music critics from that time). Which is in a way quite easy to understand: while on one hand we notice all that was new and atypical - for instance, UK "pirate radios" (pictured in the movie The Boat That Rocked, released in the US and Canada with the title Pirate Radio, and in Italy as I Love Radio Rock), or those legendary US FM stations in cities such as New York, Boston, or Berkeley - the modern framework where consumers are kings and queens of a potentially endless number of "free choices" makes one perceive the old frame as a realm of "passive" behaviour of meager choices, dictated by an inscrutable decision process very akin to a "cultural dictatorship". Which I think is a tag that fits best all modern "narrowcasting" schemes  (where one listens only to hip-hop, metal, pop, r&b, country, oldies) which try to hit the bull's eye.

One trait of that time that should be recalled more often is the relationship between "innovation" and "norm", as experienced by an "average listener". Where many different things are presented side by side, making it possible (for those willing) to perceive (subtle or drastic) differences when it comes to things such as sound, vocal and instrumental timbres, lyrics, melodies, chords, song construction, and the like. This is a side of the act of listening that (potentially) offers a "didactic" aspect, though it was never consciously assumed as a goal (only in the sense that this is always implicit in the act of ranking cultural objects).

Here, those who only see the "totalitarian" side ("everybody had to listen to the same stuff") are not able to perceive the "shared experience" aspect (where an item is "read" and "variously interpreted" by a lot of people at the same time), nor the "experimental, creative" aspect as variously perceived (let's try to picture songs such as Satisfaction, Like A Rolling Stone, and Strawberry Fields Forever inside the accepted sonic framework of their time).

If it's "rock criticism" we are talking about, I strongly feel that no prose is able to incorporate the "sense of wonder" (here readers will have to add the word "psychedelic" on their own) one gets when listening to something very involving and innovative in a more convincing way than Paul Williams's writing in his classic Crawdaddy! period. The first "rock music magazine" ever, Crawdaddy! walked hand-in-hand with the then-new rock scene during the time when Williams was its editor and main writer (1966-1968) - quite a few Crawdaddy! contributors later founding fame and fortune in the pages of Rolling Stone (a magazine which was yet to come when Crawdaddy! started).

While some articles penned by Williams have been easily available on the Net for some time  - off the top of my head, I'll mention fine reviews of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (just like Mendelssohn and Christgau, Williams was a big fan of The Kinks) and of Procol Harum's first album of same name - I believe there are not many things more perfect for "summer reading" than the collection of the best pieces penned by Williams for golden-age era Crawdaddy! as represented in Outlaw Blues: originally published in 1969, it's still available today, at a very low price, in paperback format.

Williams's way of thinking is quite slow and meticulous, expressed through a language that's very careful and precise, whose meaning is often quite surprising. (The best parallel I can find is with the verbal-meaning dimension that appears in the works of Philip Dick.) As clearly stated by Michael Lydon in his original review/introduction for the book, Williams attention for music (quite logically) includes "(...) the spaces between the songs on The Byrds Greatest Hits" (...) "that time between songs, a moment filled with consideration and regret for the song just over, and excited anticipation of the song to come".

The volume features chapters on The Rolling Stones and The Jefferson Airplane. Donovan, The Buffalo Springfield, and The Byrds. Thirty pages on Dylan. Sixty on Brian Wilson and Smile. More than a few "chronologies in music". Pictures of San Francisco. A long (and excellent) interview with Paul Rothchild about the recording sessions for The Doors' first album and a very perceptive review of said album, with lotsa space given to the meaning and narrative function of the line to the song Soul Kitchen which goes: "Learn to Forget".

(Picture this: Reading this piece by Williams, then going into a store - be it physical, or otherwise - to buy the Doors' first, only to get a remixed version which would surely amaze both Williams and Rothchild!, and which unfortunately is the only one available in a digital format right now.)

There's another book that I consider to be a perfect "summer reading": the big book titled Back To A Shadow In The Night, by Jonathan Cott (subtitle: Music Writings And Interviews 1968 - 2001, though the majority of the pieces dates from the 70s and 80s).

Reading the index to Cott's book (a critic, I should add at this point, who was once quite well-known, though today he's seldom mentioned - much probably, one suspects, due to his low productivity in recent times, due to a serious illness) one cannot help but be greatly impressed by his enormous versatility: there are writings on Stravinsky, Partch, Ives, Varèse, Gould, Weill... and Yoko Ono, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Patti Smith. Even better, I think, are his in-depth interviews, starring: George Balanchine, Pierre Boulez, Steve Reich, John Adams, Leonard Berstein (an interview I remember reading at the time of its original publication, in the pages of US magazine Rolling Stone), Michael Tilson Thomas... and John Lennon, Ray Davis, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Van Morrison.

Just a few words for Italian readers. Those who remember the cover of this tiny book published in Italy in 1974 (L. 1.000) already know a (tiny) part of Jonathan Cott's work.

The aforementioned volume offered Italian translations of a series of interviews which had previously appeared in Rolling Stone. Artists like Frank Zappa, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, James Taylor and Carly Simon, Elton John. Young readers are invited to picture this: not only the Web was yet to be invented, even the mere presence of magazines from UK and USA was a rarity - and please let's not mention the actual knowledge of English language one needed in order to read them! Hence, a prosperous industry dealing with the translation of books.

Of course, translations were often capricious, and parts were cut (maybe those where the translator could not make heads nor tails of what was being discussed?). The one by Cott with Mick Jagger, a really good one, I finally managed to read in its original version a few years later, in a volume from the early 70s edited by David Dalton. While the first time I managed to read the original version of the Lennon interview was after I bought Back To A Shadow In The Night.

The book features two fine John Lennon interviews (his first, and his last, for Rolling Stone); two conversations with Bob Dylan (from '77 and '78); a slippery Mick Jagger from the time of the release of the Rolling Stones album Some Girls ('78); a fluid Van Morrison from '78. The Ray Davis interview (from 1969, right at the time of the Kinks album Arthur, which appeared in Rolling Stone the following year) is the most beautiful and touching interview I've ever read with Davis. The same complex approach is present in the long interview with Leonard Berstein, and in the brief - but conceptually no less intense - conversation with Michael Tilson Thomas.

I'll offer readers a brief excerpt from this one (from 1999): "One of the things that we're doing today is developing into the kind of society that is impatient and selfish and, dare I say, manufacturing soulless change surfers, where there are so many possibilities that at the slightest whim someone will flip off to another channel. (...) And then the attention span gets shorter and shorter, and people lose the qualitative sense of what art is supposed to do for them."

And this is the deal now.

© Beppe Colli 2010 | Aug. 1, 2010