There are only a handful of rock critics whose careers have made them as much pop stars as the pop stars they write about: Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Legs McNeil, Robert Palmer, Jon Savage. Robert Christgau's there too, but he's the hey-I'm-just-a-fan-like-you of the bunch, a writer who doses his humbleness with a kind of backhanded smugness. In the 1970s, when he was honing his legend, he was likely to answer his front door completely nude, which for all purposes sounds like a rock-star move if there ever was one--that, or just a boho lefty professor (which he was) letting it all hang out. I suppose when your world consists of eating, sleeping, analyzing, documenting, and dumping rock music, your reality morphs to match rock's extremes, a reality that says hanging out naked around strangers is pretty tame.
You'd think, then, that the self-proclaimed Dean of Rock Criticism's writing would reflect such punchy, primitive antics. Dry self-indulgence is more like it; Christgau's 31 years as a writer--for the likes of The Village Voice, Playboy, Spin, and Rolling Stone--have been as constant and prolific as rock itself, and, for that matter, as uneven. His moments of pure brilliance, often found in shorter pieces, are cut with more moments of bloated wordplay and half-baked theory in his longer essays. He's the kind of unapologetic writer that has the ongoing clout to hire and fire his own editors, all of whom just open up the gate and let him run amok. (Is the Christgau byline really enough to make people believe it's great? Not bloody likely.) It's a surefire recipe for wretched excess, evoking cock-rock guitar solos that ramble on endlessly, to the auto-erotic satisfaction of the stoned player and the turmoil of the alienated listener. Get back to the song, already.
Never has Christgau's swollen Achilles' heel been better showcased than in his new book of essays, Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno (God, even the title is clunky). Spanning more than 50 years of pop music--from its spark-plug beginnings in such legends as the Gershwins, Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry--all the way through current trip-hop and Amerindie, the book cobbles together profiles and reviews, some with their content spread out over years of observation and tweaking (the essay on the Rolling Stones is dated as "1975-1992"; the one on Randy Newman reads "1978-1989-1995-1996"). The 75 artists he includes make sense in the big-picture context; a bit of the expected big boys (Led Zeppelin), a bit of the smaller players (Marshall Crenshaw), together creating a generous biopsy of rock's history and nuances. Christgau's roster would fit right in to one of those space-and-time-capsule scenarios: The martian asks, "What is this pop music?" Sure enough, it's as much John Lennon as it is the Mekons as it is DJ Shadow.
But the book proves again and again what's wrong with Christgau's other lobe of judgment. The problem is never his opinion. That's what a critic is born (then taught) to do--we'll agree or disagree, then move on. Rather, it's in the language, in the way he clumsily unfurls an idea; the man could beat death to death. In his introduction, even Christgau admits concern about intellectualizing such a raw art form, but that doesn't stop him from dragging rock and roll (clawing and spitting) through halls of academic pretension.
Case in point: He dedicates pages and pages to describing and analyzing the playing style of every member of the New York Dolls. C'mon. Even die-hard fans of the band would pass up such fodder. Christgau vivisects the history of the buzzsaw guitar as epitomized by Johnny Thunders--the kind of thing a tiny elitist guitar subgroup might fetishize, but that is a complete waste of our time, and far from what the Dolls were about. He skips describing the balls and bile of the band, which would make for some pretty poetic-ugly-deluxe reading, and goes after musical technique. That's like detailing the scientific facts of an orgasm and skipping the part about how it feels. His occasional forgetfulness that rock music--especially rock music as spontaneous and raucous and stoopid as the Dolls--is mostly about the visceral could be a product of his early years as an academic professor of rock and roll; his attempt to "elevate" rock criticism; or pure numbness from thinking about it so damn much. He would've made a great sports writer.
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If a music critic rarely writes musically--that is, with an integral sense of rhythm--you may begin to doubt his ear for actual music. Christgau's shorter pieces don't suffer his unmusical lumpishness--if nothing else, there's less room to get lost--and occasionally he'll approach a longer essay in a short-sentence mood, which helps. His (too) common references to a song's meter, arrangement, etc., proves his knowledge of music theory--again, not pop music's point. The book is full of long, rambling pieces with almost no meter or arrangement of their own, and by the third or fourth essay, your brain is so scrambled you have to wonder what the essays would sound like if they were reincarnated as song equivalents. Epic, unraveled, overblown: Meat Loaf on elephant tranquilizers.
Greil Marcus--now there's a musical music writer. His paragraphs slide along like oiled glass; no matter how obscure his references, how baroque his theory, your brain never snags on the phrasing. You can read a Marcus essay with speed-reader agility, catch the rhythm of it in the first lines and skid along from there, and gain some surprisingly complex insight in the process. With Christgau, even the simplest concepts get tangled and bent. To wit: "What the noisemakers proved is that Lydon's (not to mention McLaren's) exultant contempt for their supposed incompetence--even in this era of good feeling, the story circulates that two decades' worth of accrued skills compelled them to practice being 'bad'--is mean, defensive bushwa." You're constantly backpedaling, shaking the meaning loose from the knotty chain, scraping the meat off of an alien bone structure that's as dense and spindly as a dead, curled-up tarantula. It's unnecessary. Some would even say it's bad writing. (I'm waiting for a bolt of lightning to crash through the heavens and strike me dead.) Bad writing. Real crap. (Still here...)
Obviously, no one gets more than 20 years of great journal space without showing some goods. And it's easy enough to advance a career and reputation, skip-the-pebble-across-the-pond style, from one great snippet to the next, however interrupted these moments are by tripe. (Elvis Costello fans might agree.) In the midst of his swag-bellied discourse, you occasionally unearth staggeringly sharp sentences. About a Marshall Crenshaw album: "The production seemed designed to prove that Marshall wasn't retro; what it demonstrated instead was that however genuine your commitment to the present, you can look pretty foolish adjusting to its fashions."
His short stuff, the kind of reviews and capsules that he churns out far more often than the essays, is sometimes great--like dense, staccato punk-rock tunes or warm and languid ballads. His tiny, one-paragraph jewel "Why the Beatles Broke Up," included in the book, is six sentences of Bangs-style spew--something he might have written after straggling home from a bar, loose-lipped and suddenly impassioned about the subject. Perhaps he and his buddies had argued over why J, P, G, and R called it quits, and he had to write the definitive answer before passing out. "The Beatles broke up because the couple is a more stable structure than the four-way. The Beatles broke up because three of them believed they were geniuses and only one of them was...The Beatles broke up because they couldn't stand each other anymore." Finally, a blood-pumping, drum-beating heart beneath the fettered Ivy League brain.